Author non-disclosure by editor in chief
Case text (Anonymised)
Please note, this case is being submitted by the Publishing Director of the journal based on the advice of a senior COPE member because it relates to the conduct of the editor in chief of the journal. The editor in chief of the journal is aware that the case is being submitted.
A letter of complaint was submitted in November 2009 relating to an editorial published in one of our journals, authored solely by the editor in chief. The person who wrote the letter of complaint has insisted that his anonymity be protected from the editor in chief. This is because he had previously been, in his view, the victim of a harassment suit (which subsequently failed) by the organisation mentioned in the editorial for interfering in their businesses.
This letter made two allegations: (i) that the content of the editorial contained numerous inaccuracies and unsubstantiated accusations and (ii) that the editorial had an undeclared conflict of interest as an individual (Dr X) involved with the organisation that the editorial mentioned had influenced the writing and appearance of the content without Dr X’s name being disclosed
The editor in chief was advised that this communication had been received and was informed about both allegations (on an anonymised basis). The Editor responded to state that Dr X was well known to him and that he had been asked to help with the editorial because of his superior use of English. Dr X had originally been asked to be a co-author of the editorial but had refused. The editor stated that it was true that Dr X had had some influence on this editorial but the content of this editorial was fully his intellectual product for which he bore all responsibility.
The editor categorically denied that there was an undisclosed conflict of interest and concluded by requesting that the person making the allegations should bring the matter into the open and send in a letter to the Editor. In our response, we advised that since Dr X had helped with the refinement of the text, their name should have been declared at the end of the editorial, particularly as Dr X was involved with the organisation that the editorial mentioned. We asked the editor to provide further clarification about Dr X’s involvement with the editorial. The editor replied to say that Dr X was a reviewer of his paper and that he, the editor, would not agree to general or even specific disclosure of Dr X’s participation with the preparation of the editorial to the readers of the journal. He reiterated that he would be prepared to enter into an open debate if the person making the allegations would submit a letter to the editor.
We responded to the editor to say we believed that the editor was confusing his role as author and editor. That as an editor, since he authored an article in which he viewed Dr X as taking the role of expert reviewer, then the paper should not have been handled by him as editor but should have been passed to another editor to make the decision about whether the editorial was suitable for publication. As the author of the article, he was required to disclose the involvement of Dr X who helped him to write it.
The editor responded and stated that he agreed there was some confusion between the roles of editor and author but that he did not see how the roles could be separated and reiterated that he would only respond to the allegations if a letter to the editor was openly submitted to him.
Despite further communication with the editor, no further progress has been made and the matter has been left with us advising the editor that it is not acceptable to us as owner and publisher of the journal to have published an editorial authored by the editor in chief who has subsequently admitted to us in writing that there was a further individual involved in the writing and preparation of the editorial whose name has not been disclosed to the readers of the journal. We advised the editor that if he remained unwilling to comply with our request that we would have to consider what further action to take which may involve taking this matter to COPE.
With regard to the second allegation, we advised the editor that we would be obtaining independent evaluation of the content of the article. The editorial was sent out to three independent experts. The outcome of these was that one reviewer supported publication of the editorial whereas the other two opposed publication. Given this mixture of reviews, we have not taken this matter any further and are still hopeful that the person making the initial anonymous complaint may still decide to write a letter to the editor to bring his concerns into the open.
We would appreciate the advice of COPE as to what next steps we should now take.
The Forum agreed that this was an interesting case but felt that it needed more information. Some members questioned the nature of the complaint. Is it not acceptable for editors to write editorials and express their own views? That might be viewed as part of the editor’s job. However, the publisher confirmed that she was unable to disclose any more details without breaking confidentiality but that the content of the editorial was also an issue.
In light of the fact that the publisher could not provide any further details, the Forum focused on the conflict of interest issue. It seems that the editor has admitted having a conflict of interest but refuses to publish this fact. All agreed that the editor should disclose his conflict of interest in the journal, whether or not a letter to the editor is openly submitted to him. The advice from the Forum was to encourage the complainant to write a letter to the editor, to which the editor could respond and declare his conflict of interest and hence the debate would be in the public domain. Although the publisher mentioned that she had tried this route unsuccessfully, she was encouraged to pursue this again. If this fails, other advice was to convene a semi-formal investigation and appoint an independent advisor or adjudicator. Ultimately, however, the editor is answerable to the publisher and the publisher must decide whether disciplinary action is required.