Allegation of reviewer malpractice

Case number:
01-34

Case text (Anonymised)

A member of the editorial board of Journal A was approached by an overseas colleague with a strange tale. An epidemiological study had been conducted in the community around an industrial facility, funded by a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers. The study concluded that health effects in the community were related to exposures emanating from the facility. A paper based on the study was submitted to Journal A and rejected. It was also submitted in support of a lawsuit (relating to the same plaintiffs). As part of the “discovery” process, the author, who was an expert witness for the plaintiffs, disclosed that the paper had been rejected by Journal A and he had to submit to the court the reviewers’ reports. The reports were seen by the overseas colleague. One review was detailed and critical; the other was general and positive, and recommended publication. It emerged in court that the positive review came from an individual who was working on behalf of the plaintiffs as a paid expert and who “had had a relationship with the study author for more than 10 years. ” The primary question from the overseas colleague is whether the reviewer was nominated by the author or was chosen quite independently by the Journal. Bias by the reviewer and collusion seems more likely if the reviewer was nominated by the author. Journal A encourages nomination of suitable reviewers, but only uses them sometimes, and always with another one chosen separately. The editor of Journal A is seeking legal advice about revealing whether the reviewer was nominated by the author. The Journal is also going to introduce a specific requirement for reviewers to declare any possible competing interests. This would not necessarily prevent malpractice, but it does show reviewers this is an issue that is taken seriously. This case is submitted as a reminder that reviewers can also misbehave and to seek guidance about any further action required. The positive review by the reviewer suspected of misconduct was apparently presented during the court case in support of the scientific validity of the paper rejected by Journal A. Legal advice to the editor of Journal A is that it is permissible to reveal that the reviewer in question was nominated by the author of the paper (as is the case) but without offering any comment on the case.

Advice: 

_ This is a case for the record. _ It is a salutary reminder about requesting that both reviewers and authors declare competing interests. _ Authors can pressurise editors, but they should resist such pressure. _ When reviewer comments are sent to authors perhaps they should carry a disclaimer.

Follow up: 

The Editor provided a signed declaration stating the journal’s practice of asking authors to suggest reviewer(s) who may or may not be used for that purpose. The Editor’s declaration stated that the reviewer in question was nominated by the authors and that no competing interest was declared by either the authors or the reviewer.

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