The pitfalls of complaining about those in power: the Committee on Publication Ethics’ handling of an authorship dispute unsatisfactorily resolved by a university

whos on first

Who’s on first?

We shouldn’t expect any other outcome when a former PhD student complains to COPE. Note how the university stacked the deck in defining rules for how these disputes are resolved.

cope screenshot authorship dispute

My summary

Like a lot of these  authorship disputes, details of the official record do not reveal much. But…

COPE deftly passed responsibility for settling an issue of contested authorship back to the journal. No surprise, the journal passed responsibility back to the university, which predictably supported professors over a student.

This case history reaffirmed my expectations of COPE and of universities forced to judge between faculty and a former PhD student. But there is some interesting rules revealed in the telling.

Someone outside of academia might think, “For Pete’s sake, give the student the first authorship. What’s the big deal?” They don’t understand the logic of these kinds of situations.

Early career persons low in power risk compounding their mistreatment when formally complaining about abuse, unless they have the assistance of others in their immediate environment with more power.

Appropriation and denial of authorship often take advantage of prevailing norms in an environment favoring the more powerful over the weaker.

Early career persons challenging what they perceive are injustices may get more blowback than they expect because they are threatening some practices lots of people are doing and accepting without protest.

Caught in an authorship dispute, early career persons may have a sense of injustice. They may be motivated to complain and to rectify the situation and endure whatever cost that involves. But they should not miscalculate and have the expectation that the environment, both local and COPE, will respond with a shared sense of injustice.

What we know

A PhD student lost control of her project when she failed to complete her PhD.

The PhD student complained about not getting a first authorship resulting paper.

The corresponding author, presumably the PhD student’s advisor, declared that the PhD student at not contributed to the experiments and neither the writing nor the analyses reported in the paper were performed by the PhD student.

The University backed up the corresponding author by asserting that universities own the data generated by state funded projects. Furthermore, authorship by PhD students requires that they complete their PhD within the allotted time.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) called the decision by the University “punitive” and suggested that the journal contact the University and requested a re-investigation and a resolution.

Not surprisingly, the University sided with the corresponding author.

Things to be noted

We don’t know what led up to the PhD student not completing with the allotted time, something that the corresponding author could have influenced.

Journals increasingly require that authorship be based on documented contributions to a paper, but advisers and other faculty members can control students’ ability to make such contributions, even when the research is their own. Faculty can deny access to these activities in ways that undercut any claims of authorship, even for the student’s own project.

So, faculty members can take a student’s work, write up the research without giving the student the opportunity to participate. The faculty can then use the student’s lack of contribution to the writing as a justification for diminished rights to authorship.

I’m not surprised that a complaint to COPE proved ineffective. The committee simply advises journals, and cannot dictate what is done. I’ve seen COPE be quite passive in the face of editors abusing authors. COPE tends to pass issues back to journals, which then passed it back to institutions. The results can usually be predicted.

A case history

Authorship dispute unsatisfactorily resolved by institution [emphasis added]

The journal was contacted with a claim to first authorship of a paper currently published online ahead of print. Print publication was put on hold pending the result of the investigation. The claim to first authorship was based on the claimant stating that they had obtained most results published in the paper during their PhD studies under the supervision of the corresponding author, and contributed to the writing of the text. The claimant provided evidence of this in the form of screenshots of a submission confirmation email and subsequent rejection email from another journal for a manuscript with a similar title, a Word document labelled as the claimant’s PhD thesis and details of overlap with the published paper, and a screenshot of an email reported to have been sent by the claimant to the corresponding author in 2013 containing images used in the published paper.

The corresponding author was contacted and declared on behalf of all authors that the claimant had not contributed to the experiments or writing, and that none of the results shown in the article were performed by the claimant. They explained that the claimant was discharged from the PhD programme before successful completion. The claimant indicated that they wished to dispute this, and the institution was asked to investigate and resolve the dispute.

The institution informed the journal that the knowledge generated during state funded projects was the property of the institution, and only the institution has the ability to agree a copyright transfer in agreement with the corresponding author, and that the corresponding author had full legal and institutional support to determine the author list of papers resulting from the project. They stated that a graduate student may or may not be included as an author on papers deriving from projects to which they have contributed, and according to institutional guidelines, in order to be included as an author, a student must successfully complete their studies within a defined timeframe. The decision to remove the claimant as a co-author was confirmed to have been made because they were dismissed from the graduate programme before successful completion.


The Forum noted it seems punitive on the part of the university regarding their decision to exclude the student from being an author because they did not complete their studies within a defined timeframe. If the student was in the middle of their training and had submitted a paper, would the institution have handled the case differently? Was the claimant’s role acknowledged in the published article? If not, might the claimant and authors agree to a correction to publish an acknowledgment?

Otherwise, a suggestion was to contact a higher authority at the institution—perhaps a committee on research integrity at the institution— or an oversight body and ask them to investigate and try to resolve the authorship issue. The Forum noted that it is up to the journal to set their own guidelines for authorship, and to clearly state that they follow the ICMJE and COPE guidelines, for example. The journal guidelines should take precedence.


Following advice from the COPE Forum, the journal approached the highest authority within the university to specifically confirm that the authorship of the paper was determined according to the criteria set by ICMJE/COPE, which they did. No further action was taken. The editor considers the case closed.


Case Closed


This could have gone differently.

For whatever reason, a student left the PhD program, presumably after investing a lot of time and effort. In some American programs, the student would be granted a terminal masters degree. As a faculty member, I would probably be inclined to help the student to write up a research paper so they had something to show for their time in the program. My decision would be a matter of charity, not a sense of what the student was owed.

I strongly suspect this case occurred in a European program. The evidence is that the student had a set time to complete the PhD. In the United States, that time period is often more flexible. I doubt there would be a rule in the United States the PhD student whose claims on the work it was not completed in an allotted time. Also, the student apparently was expected to publish their papers during their PhD, rather than waiting until the degree was awarded.

In the United States, PhD students are considered students.  any payment of their tuition or other expenses is considered a scholarship or fellowship. Students are seeing a working on the career. In contrast, in Europe, being a PhD student is a paid hourly position. A student receives health insurance contribution to the retirement fund. Yet, because they are being paid for their work, the workplace (university) retains control of their work.

Why, if you were a cook in a restaurant, you would not expect to take home the last meal you had been preparing, if you were discharged.


One thought on “The pitfalls of complaining about those in power: the Committee on Publication Ethics’ handling of an authorship dispute unsatisfactorily resolved by a university

  1. Readers of this blog post about issues with COPE might be interested in reading my paper “Is partial behaviour a plausible explanation for the unavailability of the ICMJE disclosure form of an author in a BMJ journal?” in which I describe my experiences to get a copy of this ICMJE form. The author in question is a member of the council of COPE.
    See (open access).

    There is until now one comment on my paper. This comment if from Frits Rosendaal, a full professor at Leiden University, The Netherlands, and another member of the council of COPE. Professor Rosendaal states in his review that my paper contains ‘bizarre claims’ and that my paper was published in an ‘obscure journal’. That’s the entire contents of the review by professor Rosendaal. The review was received from a third party on 12 November 2017 and it was dated 11 November 2017. Requests to substantiate his statement that my paper contains ”bizarre claims’ remained until now unanswered. The journal is published by the ‘Università degli Studi di Milano’ (the University of Milan in Italy) and it is listed by DOAJ, see

    Professor Rosendaal is a visiting professor at this university. So professor Rosendaal, a member of the council of COPE, is arguing that this university is a publisher of an ‘obsure journal’.

    The editor had told me that he is welcoming comments which will be published alongside my paper. I have therefore invited professor Rosendaal to submit his views about my paper as a comment to the editors of this journal.


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