The director of a top laboratory in Germany has charged that two of his former research students took data from his laboratory without his permission and published scientifically incorrect interpretations of them against his advice.

Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis (pictured), of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, further claims that the journal involved, Human Brain Mapping, acted incorrectly by publishing the paper after he told them the data were inappropriate. He says the journal has denied him the right to a timely reply.

One of the two editors-in-chief of Human Brain Mapping, Peter Fox of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, told Nature that the paper was correctly refereed, but declined to add details.

Logothetis is furious about the publication of data, which he believes will mislead the field, and about the fact that the authors of the paper allege that he tried to stop them publishing the data for personal reasons.

The affair began in the spring, when Amir Shmuel, who worked in Logothetis's laboratories from 2002 to 2007 and is now at the Montreal Neurological Institute of McGill University in Canada, asked Logothetis for permission to use data generated there.

Although he agreed at first, Logothetis withdrew his permission when he realized that the data — from functional magnetic resonance imaging studies on monkey brains — were being used to support a theory about spontaneous brain activity. The data had been collected when monkeys were looking at a grey but flickering LED screen. “The protocol was just inappropriate for analysis of spontaneous brain activity,” says Logothetis.

Several months later, he says, he was surprised to receive an e-mail from Shmuel containing a complete paper using the same data, co-authored with another former research student, David Leopold, who worked in the labs between 1992 and 2003, where he collected some of the data himself. Leopold is now at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Shmuel invited Logothetis to join as third author, telling him that the paper had already been accepted for publication and would appear online in a few days. It had been accepted six weeks earlier.

The journal used the Max Planck Society to excuse their own mismanagement of the case.

Matters escalated. “I told him that the data were not publishable,” says Logothetis, who also wrote to Fox proposing that the paper should not be published. But Leopold then wrote directly to the Max Planck Society (MPS), which runs 80 research institutes in Germany, claiming that Logothetis was trying to prevent him and Shmuel from publishing data for personal reasons.

After consultation with Logothetis, MPS vice-president Herbert Jäckle wrote to the authors giving approval for the use of the data, but adding that Logothetis's scientific concerns should be taken into account, in accordance with the MPS's code of good scientific practice. Small changes were made to the paper that did not satisfy Logothetis, and it went online as planned on 8 May.

Jäckle says that the journal misrepresented his approval of the use of the data as being permission to publish. “But we only ever gave approval to use the data — the journal used the Max Planck Society to excuse their own mismanagement of the case.”

Jäckle also notes that he requested that the MPS should not be listed in the paper as a funder of the project, because neither of the two authors had been directly funded by the society. But the request was ignored.

Logothetis says the paper does not give sufficient information to have allowed referees to understand the source of the data. He adds that Human Brain Mapping has not guaranteed him the opportunity to publish a response with his own interpretation of the data. He says the paper could mislead the field, for example, with its claims to see waves of activity in the cortex that Logothetis's analysis does not support.

Fox, who refused to retract the paper, says: “The editors of Human Brain Mapping were entirely appropriate — that's all I want to say about it.”

Shmuel and Leopard issued a statement to Nature in which they say: “We are confident, and rigorous peer review agreed, that the data we collected are appropriate for studying spontaneous activity and the resting state in the brain. We stand by the conclusions we made in our paper.”