The Max Planck Society (MPS) in Germany has begun legal proceedings against publishers Wiley International in a dispute over an editorial in the February issue of Human Brain Mapping.

Herbert Jäckle wants the Max Planck Society's letter published. Credit: Max Planck Society

The society alleges that the editorial grievously misrepresents it and harms the reputation of one of its scientists. It wants the journal to publish a letter from the society addressing these concerns without delay.

Peter Fox, an editor-in-chief at Human Brain Mapping, says that the MPS letter went through normal refereeing processes "in a timely manner", but says he does not know when it will be published. MPS vice-president Herbert Jäckle, a developmental biologist who was deputized to speak for the society, claims that the journal has unfairly delayed the society's right to reply.

The dispute has been raging for nearly a year. Fox, a neurologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, accepted the letter on 11 March, two days after the deadline the society set before taking legal action. Fox says that he will publish the letter together with a reply that "rebuts Dr Jäckle's various accusations".

"I don't have a problem with the journal printing a reply," says Jäckle. "But I fear that without expedited publication, the letter would appear on the web only after months of delay and in print only in a year."

The row originally centred on a dispute over who owned data gathered in the laboratory of Nikos Logothetis at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen. Last spring, Amir Shmuel and David Leopold used the data in a paper for a special issue of Human Brain Mapping on spontaneous brain activity — activity that occurs when there is no visual input. Logothetis says that the data were used inappropriately because they had been gathered for a different purpose, when the research monkeys were staring at a flickering screen. He wrote to the journal's editor, among other actions, asking for the paper not to be published1.

It was, however, published online2 on 8 May 2008. Logothetis published a scientific rebuttal in NeuroImage3, which appeared online in January 2009.

Fox, together with the three other editors of the special issue, published an extended editorial analysing the dispute in the framework of ethics. This appeared online on 9 December 2008 and in print in the February issue of Human Brain Mapping4. The MPS says that there are numerous factual errors in the editorial's account of events. Jäckle is also incensed by the article's claims that he had given permission to publish the disputed paper. "I was only a mediator in a dispute, not an adjudicator as the editorial claims," he says. "It is not up to the Max Planck Society to permit publication of anything — that responsibility lies solely with the editors."

The MPS has posted a response to the February editorial on the website of Logothetis's laboratory (see

"The goal of our editorial was to use this conflict to discuss the ethical principles that govern responsible conduct of research and peer review," says Fox, "and thereby to develop guidelines that would prevent future occurrences of this nature."