A hare-raising expression of concern after an author hires a third party to get a paper published

By Worm That Turned, via Wikimedia

An Elsevier journal has issued a rather remarkable expression of concern for a 2021 paper on rabbit husbandry after learning that the lead author misrepresented the authorship of the article – and possibly more. 

The paper, “Supplementing rabbit diets with butylated hydroxyanisole affects oxidative stress, growth performance, and meat quality,” appeared in animal and ostensibly came from a group in Egypt and Saudi Arabia led by Tharwat Imbabi.

But as the journal explains, the article wasn’t the first rabbit rodeo for Imbabi, of the department of animal production at Benha University. According to the notice, the researcher had failed repeatedly to publish his manuscript in other journals, so he turned to “third parties” for help. 

Those contributors did the bulk of the work  – but wanted none of the credit. Meanwhile, Imbabi appears to have found other authors willing to join the list. 

We’ll let the expression of concern tell the rest: 

This is a note of a temporary expression of concern related to the above-mentioned publication.

The concern is about a dispute of authorship brought to our attention by third parties and doubts on the reliability of the findings identified by the journal.

The journal was informed that third parties had been invited by the first author for help to get the manuscript published after rejection by several journals. Evidence was provided that third parties rewrote 75% of the manuscript but declined co-authorship. The manuscript submitted to animal showed 70% similarity with the manuscript revised by third parties. By contrast, the submitted and the published article included several co-authors who did not contribute to any of the previous versions revised by third parties to which the journal had access, raising doubts on their eligibility as co-authors. Also, the journal analysed the different preliminary versions of the published article, and noticed that the feed composition reported in Table 1 of the published article differed from that in the different preliminary versions provided by third parties, raising a doubt on the accuracy of the reporting and the reliability of the findings. The authorship and reporting issues were raised to the corresponding author and the different institutions involved for clarifications and investigations. No response has been received.

The concern and this note will remain appended to the above-mentioned article, unless the parties provide the editors of animal with a solution to the dispute and proof of the reliability of the findings.

Imbabi did not respond to a request for comment. 

Meanwhile, our emails to the editor of animal did not receive a reply, so we tried our luck with the Elsevier press office. We wanted to know in particular why the journal opted for an expression of concern instead of a retraction. 

Andrew Davis, a spokesman for the publisher, told us: 

According to COPE, authorship disputes do not typically justify a retraction, hence the Expression of Concern.

The journal was contacted in October 2021 by a scientist who reported to have helped in revising the paper and who expressed concerns about the authorship of the article. They stated that they had declined authorship of the paper.

The journal separately noticed that the feed composition reported in Table 1 of the published article differed from that in the different preliminary versions provided by the scientist, raising a doubt on the accuracy of the reporting and the reliability of the findings.

The journal wrote to the corresponding author and subsequently escalated the concerns to the different institutions involved but has not yet received a response.

Although it’s perhaps true that authorship disputes don’t “typically” result in retraction, we certainly have seen our share of such cases that did. And guidelines from COPE – the Committee on Publication Ethics, of which Elsevier is a member – are rather less forgiving about authorship disputes when the data are also in question. 

We also pressed Davis about the involvement of the mysterious “third party,” and whether that warranted retraction, but he has not responded. 

Meanwhile, the notice seems to suggest that the rabbit paper will exist in a sort of lepus-oid zombie state.

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