The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has questioned whether the leading science journal Cell responded adequately to a number of academics who complained that a paper it published did not properly credit their work.
Times Higher Education reported in November that concerns had been raised about a paper on planar cell polarity, which originated from the laboratory of Jeffrey Axelrod of Stanford University's School of Medicine and which was published in Cell in June 2008.
Five researchers from four research groups across three countries wrote to Cell to complain that the discovery outlined in the paper was not as new as it suggested, and that the paper did not properly credit their own earlier findings.
In particular, they complained that similar findings published in the journal Development in October 2004 were not properly cited.
The complainants were told by Cell, which does not print contributors' letters, that they could make their case by posting a comment on its website. They rejected the offer and instead published a response in another journal, Current Biology.
Development then sought advice on whether Cell's response was sufficient from COPE, a UK-registered charity concerned with the integrity of peer-reviewed publications whose members include the editors of both Development and Cell.
The advice from COPE, passed to Times Higher Education, said that editors have a duty to "encourage debate" and publish "cogent criticisms of published work".
While the aggrieved researchers should - "if nothing else is available" - be "encouraged to make a comment on the website", COPE acknowledged that this might be insufficient because web comments are "not citable" academically and do not carry unique identifying numbers.
COPE suggested that the aggrieved researchers could complain to a "higher authority", such as the journal's publisher or a learned society. COPE said: "Is something published if it appears on a website or does it have to be citable? ... (We will) look again at (our) code of conduct with a view to clarifying what it meant by 'published'."
One of the scientists making the complaint, Peter Lawrence of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge, said he was glad to see COPE giving the case some support, but he was disappointed that Cell would take no action.
"It must have been unprecedented to have letters from so many different groups complaining about one paper, and I don't think (Cell) did enough," Professor Lawrence said. "They should offer us authors a proper right to reply about the paper."
Jim Smith, editor of Development, said that significant complaints against a paper should be published with "equivalent publication status" to the original article.
"This means that it should be citable, have a digital object identifier and be linked to from the original article. This is vital to allow the readers of that original article to be aware of the debate and ... the community to be accurately directed," he said.
Stanford's School of Medicine has said that after a review of the papers, it has rejected any suggestion of research misconduct and will take no further action. Cell declined to comment on the COPE decision.