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.


When Simon Wessely shoved a Hans Eysenck scandal under the rug

Updated May 7, 2016

I have also now responded to Sir Simon Wessely ‘s comment on Twitter about this post. I invite a further reply from him.

  • Soon there may be a renewed call for an investigation of misconduct by famous UK psychologist Hans Eysenck.
  •  What happened the last time reflects on the ability of UK academia to self-correct atrociously bad science and bad publication practices.
  •  As we are currently seeing in other scandals, UK academia looks after its own, no matter what.

swept-rug-BruceKrasting-flickr-370x242The centenary of the birth of UK psychologist Hans Eysenck in March has already been marked by release of a special collection of articles from  about Eysenck from the archives of the British Psychological Association’s The Psychologist.

The centenary  will be also be celebrated with a special commemorative issue of Personality and Individual Differences, one of the journals that he started and edited. I assume many of the articles will praise Eysenck’s accomplishments as the founder of British clinical psychology, his key contribution to establishing cognitive behavior therapy in the UK, and his overall status as one of the most cited psychologists of all time.

If that’s the case, one contribution by UK psychiatrist Anthony Pelosi will stand out like a tuba joining a string ensemble, if it is anything like his past writings. Stay tuned.

Hans Eysenck oneIf he is consistent with his past writings, Tony may reignite earlier charges that Hans Eysenck was a fraudster, abused editorial privilege, and had huge, corrupting undisclosed conflicts of interest – payments not only from American tobacco companies but from their lawyers desperately trying to muster evidence that smoking did not cause cancer. Evidence that Hans Eysenck cooked up for them.

Then editor of The BMJ Richard Smith had backed Pelosi decades ago, as seen in Smith’s slides about editorial misconduct.

slide1 R Smith Eysenckslide 2 r smith should editors

Pelosi and fellow psychiatrist Louis Appleby had made their case earlier in two articles in The BMJ:

Pelosi AJ, Appleby L. Psychological influences on cancer and ischaemic heart disease. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 1992 May 16;304(6837):1295.

Pelosi AJ, Appleby L. Personality and fatal diseases. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 1993 Jun 19;306(6893):1666.

It was an extraordinary move for The BMJ to publish these articles. Lawyers had to clear them before they could be published. Note that Pelosi and Appleby’s scathing criticism of Eysenck’s work did not concern anything that The BMJ had published. Rather, they focused on articles that Eysenck had published in journals that he had founded and over which he still had editorial control. Try to find another example of The BMJ becoming a forum for this kind of thing, before or since.

Eysenck responded with a characteristically evasive and dismissive reply:

Eysenck HJ. Psychosocial factors, cancer, and ischaemic heart disease. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 1992 Aug 22;305(6851):457.

Pelosi made a formal complaint to the British Psychological Society.

According to Rodrick Buchanan’s biography of Eysenck, Playing with Fire:

The BPS investigatory committee deemed it “inappropriate” to set up an investigatory panel to look into the material Pelosi had sent them, and henceforth considered the matter closed. Pelosi disagreed, of course, but was left with little recourse.

Pelosi also made a complaint to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE):

Pelosi AJ. The responsibility of academic institutions and professional organisations after accusations of scientific misconduct. The COPE report 1998. London, BMJ Publishing 1998.

One might have thought that the fuss would grab attention in the British media. The only mention was an article by Simon Wessely in The Times. Wessely put out the fire.

Simon on Eysenck

 The normally calm pages of the British Medical Journal have carried a series of critical articles questioning the basis of what must be the most extraordinary claims ever made for the origin of cancer. At the heart of the dispute lies the ever controversial figure of Hans Eysenck, until recently professor of psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, and his  Croat collaborator, Ronald Grossarth-Maticek.

Wessely identified Eysenck’s critics as members of the fold.

 … In a penetrating article, Tony Pelosi and Louis Appleby subjected Eysenck and Grossarth-Maticek’s series of papers to a critical analysis, which they have followed up with a second piece this week. According to the two psychiatrist, who both trained at the Institute of Psychiatry, the claims were too good to be true.

First, those with the cancer-prone personality died at an extraordinary rate – 121 times faster than the controls.

But there was praise for Hans Eysenck as well.

 Of course, Professor Eysenck, the most influential psychologists of our time, has faced many assaults before (including, unforgettably, physical ones). It would take more than a couple of psychiatrists to ruffle him.

And so it proved. His replies made no concessions to his critics. In essence, his reply was “either you believe these findings, or you don’t”. He was certainly correct on one point. If his results are true, the doctors have been scandalously negligent in ignoring what is the most dramatic breakthrough in the treatment of cancer for many years.

Wessely knew damn well these claims were not just too good to be true. Independent investigation by numerous scientists had revealed them to be fraudulent. Wessely missed his chance to join in calling for an investigation of Hans Eysenck. He passed on it and called for calm.

Of greater concern is that this affair has drawn attention away from the real progress has been made in the psychological management of cancer. In a series of careful studies spread over many years, British psychiatrists and psychologists have described the psychological impact of both the diagnosis of cancer and  the painful treatments that frequently follow. They’ve shown the effect of coping strategies on the prognosis of breast cancer – those who show either “fighting spirit”, or those who deny that there is any danger, seem to do better.

Simon was referring to a single, small, methodologically poor study making claims that having a fighting spirit prolonged life of cancer patients. As I have described elsewhere, a subsequent better designed study by the same authors could not replicate these findings. The authors expressed relief that their negative results provided some correction to the impression there earlier study had created. Namely, if having a fighting spirit does not matter for survival, patients who are dying from cancer cannot blame themselves or be blamed for not fighting harder.

As far as I can tell, there was no further comment in the British media.

Somehow, I don’t think Simon Wessely will be calling for an investigation of Hans Eysenck’s nefarious doings. As Yogi Berra would’ve said, it will be déjà vu all over again.theres-nothing-to-see-here

 Updated May 7, 2016.

Sir Simon Wessely has responded to my blog post on Twitter. I have invited him to respond further with a comment posted at this blog site. Meanwhile, I will reply to his tweet.

Simon tweet

My reply: Dr. Wessely, you conceded that for Pelosi’s articles to appear in The BMJ was truly extraordinary. There was pressure on the Institute of Psychiatry to investigate. There as also a formal complaint to the British Psychological Society. But instead of joining in a call for an investigation, you identified the “greater concern” that the “affair” has “drawn attention away from the real progress has been made in the psychological management of cancer.” What “real progress”?

Psychologist Maggie Watson would later express relief that a larger, better designed study did not replicate her very preliminary findings that adopting a “fighting spirit” allowed cancer patients to live longer. She was relieved because not replicating these findings meant cancer patients would not be blamed for succumbing to a dreadful disease. In retrospect, it was an improbable idea that could potentially hurt patients. And it was wrong.

In an 800 word editorial in The Times, you basically dismissed the serous issues that Pelosi and Appleby raised as a mere distraction. There was no further mention in the UK Press, no further investigation of Eysenck’s well documented fraud and scientific misconduct.

Do you think that was a good outcome? Does this “affair” have relevance to contemporary difficulties in UK academia correcting bad science and bad publication practices?

I welcome your reply. Thanks for having publicized my blog on Twitter.