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Do Corresponding Authors Take Responsibility for Their Work? A Covert Survey

A CORR Insights to this article was published on 03 September 2014

Abstract

Background

Publication of a manuscript does not end an author’s responsibilities. Reasons to contact an author after publication include clarification, access to raw data, and collaboration. However, legitimate questions have been raised regarding whether these responsibilities generally are being met by corresponding authors of biomedical publications.

Questions/purposes

This study aims to establish (1) what proportion of corresponding authors accept the responsibility of correspondence; (2) identify characteristics of responders; and (3) assess email address decay with time. We hypothesize that the response rate is unrelated to journal impact factor.

Methods

We contacted 450 corresponding authors throughout various fields of biomedical research regarding the availability of additional data from their study, under the pretense of needing these data for a related review article. Authors were randomly selected from 45 journals whose impact factors ranged from 52 to 0; the source articles were published between May 2003 and May 2013. The proportion of corresponding authors who replied, along with author characteristics were recorded, as was the proportion of emails that were returned for inactive addresses; 446 authors were available for final analysis.

Results

Fifty-three percent (190/357) of the authors with working email addresses responded to our request. Clinical researchers were more likely to reply than basic/translational scientists (51% [114/225] versus 34% [76/221]; p < 0.001). Impact factor and other author characteristics did not differ. Logistic regression analysis showed that the odds of replying decreased by 15% per year (odds ratio [OR], 0.85; 95% CI, 0.79–0.91; p < 0.001), and showed a positive relationship between clinical research and response (OR, 2.0; 95% CI, 1.3–2.9; p = 0.001). In 2013 all email addresses (45/45) were reachable, but within 10 years, 49% (21/43) had become invalid.

Conclusions

Our results suggest that contacting corresponding authors is problematic throughout the field of biomedical research. Defining the responsibilities of corresponding authors by journals more explicitly—particularly after publication of their manuscript—may increase the response rate on data requests. Possible other ways to improve communication after research publication are: (1) listing more than one email address per corresponding author, eg, an institutional and personal address; (2) specifying all authors’ email addresses; (3) when an author leaves an institution, send an automated reply offering alternative ways to get in touch; and (4) linking published manuscripts to research platforms.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Jos de Bruin, Drs and David Ring MD, PhD (Orthopaedic Hand and Upper Extremity Service, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA) for their thorough reading and helpful comments.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Teun Teunis MD.

Additional information

One of the authors (TT) received research grants from the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund & Kuitse Fung (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) (less than USD 10,000), and Fundatie van de Vrijvrouwe van Renswoude te’s-Gravenhage (The Hague, The Netherlands) (less than USD 10,000).

One of the authors (JS) certifies that he, or a member of his immediate family, has or may receive payments or benefits, during the study period from Stryker (Kalamazoo, MI, USA) (less than USD 10,000), and Biom’up (Saint-Priest, France) (less than USD 10,000).

All ICMJE Conflict of Interest Forms for authors and Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research ® editors and board members are on file with the publication and can be viewed on request.

Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research ® neither advocates nor endorses the use of any treatment, drug, or device. Readers are encouraged to always seek additional information, including FDA-approval status, of any drug or device prior to clinical use.

Each author certifies that his or her institution waived approval for the human protocol for this investigation and that all investigations were conducted in conformity with ethical principles of research.

Appendices

Appendix 1. Selected journals

Ranking Journal Impact factor General focus*
1 New England Journal of Medicine 52 Clinical research
2 Lancet 39 Clinical research
3 Journal of the American Medical Association 30 Clinical research
4 Lancet Oncology 25 Clinical research
5 Cancer Cell 25 Basic science
6 Journal of Clinical Oncology 18 Clinical research
7 British Medical Journal 17 Clinical research
8 Molecular Cell 15 Basic science
9 Molecular Psychiatry 15 Basic science
10 Genome Research 14 Basic science
11 Journal of the National Cancer Institute 14 Clinical research
12 Acta Crystallographica Section D 14 Basic science
13 Annals of Internal Medicine 14 Internal/general medicine
14 Developmental Cell 13 Basic science
15 Genes & Development 12 Basic science
16 Journal of Cell Biology 11 Basic science
17 Cell Research 11 Basic science
18 Molecular Biology and Evolution 10 Basic science
19 Leukemia 10 Basic science
20 Cancer Research 8.7 Basic science
21 Cell Death & Differentiation 8.4 Basic science
22 Nucleic Acids Research 8.3 Basic science
23 Clinical Cancer Research 7.8 Clinical research
24 Stem Cells 7.7 Basic science
25 Annals of Oncology 7.4 Clinical research
26 Canadian Medical Association Journal 6.5 Clinical research
27 Journal of Internal Medicine 6.5 Internal/general medicine
28 Annals of Surgery 6.3 Surgery
29 American Journal of Transplantation 6.2 Clinical research
30 Journal of Neuro-Oncology 6.2 Clinical research
31 Cell Cycle 5.2 Basic science
32 Annals of Medicine 5.1 Internal/general medicine
33 Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry 4.9 Surgery
34 American Journal of Preventive Medicine 3.9 Internal/general medicine
35 Liver Transplantation 3.9 Surgery
36 Journal of Molecular Biology 3.9 Basic science
37 Shock Journal 2.6 Surgery
38 Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 2.6 Internal/general medicine
39 International Journal of Biological Macromolecules 2.6 Basic science
40 Journal of Investigative Surgery 1.3 Surgery
41 Biological Trace Element Research 1.3 Basic science
42 Yonsei Medical Journal 1.3 Surgery
43 Preparative Biochemistry & Biotechnology 0.41 Basic science
44 International Surgery 0.31 Surgery
45 Scottish Medical Journal 0.29 Internal/general medicine
  1. * As indicated by the ISI web of knowledge.

Appendix 2. Sent email request

Dear Dr [author’s initials and last name]:

With great interest we read your article: [manuscript title]. We would like to include your article in our systematic review; however, we need some additional data not mentioned in your manuscript. Please let us know if you would be so kind to provide us with this data.

Kind regards,

T. Teunis MD

Research Fellow

Massachusetts General Hospital

Harvard Medical School

phone: (+1) 617-724-9563

email: tteunis@partners.org

fax: (+1) 617-643-1274

Appendix 3. Explanatory email

Dear Dr [author’s initials and last name]:

Thank you for your response. We want to inform you that our previous email was intentionally misleading: we are conducting a survey on the response rate of corresponding authors. To minimize bias, we were not able to tell you this in our previous correspondence. Your paper was randomly selected. Our intent is to see how many corresponding authors actually accept the role of “corresponding author” and are willing to share data on email request. We are not actually asking for any additional data. All results are handled confidentially and are from this point on anonymized. Your name will not be linked to any response provided. If you wish to have a copy of our study results/report, let us know by email and we will send you a copy electronically. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact us. We apologize for any distress or inconvenience, and thank you for your response.

Sincerely,

Teun Teunis MD

Research fellow

&

Joseph H. Schwab MD, MA

Principal Investigator, Chief of Spine Surgery

Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

Massachusetts General Hospital

Harvard Medical School

Address: Room 3.946, Yawkey Building

Massachusetts General Hospital

55 Fruit Street

Boston, MA 02114, USA

phone: 617-724-9563

email1: tteunis@mgh.harvard.edu

email2: jhschwab@mgh.harvard.edu

fax: 617-643-1274

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Teunis, T., Nota, S.P.F.T. & Schwab, J.H. Do Corresponding Authors Take Responsibility for Their Work? A Covert Survey. Clin Orthop Relat Res 473, 729–735 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11999-014-3868-3

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Keywords

  • Impact Factor
  • Email Address
  • Journal Impact Factor
  • Individual Participant Data
  • Average Impact Factor