Author of rejected letter blames global bias against his message and undisclosed conflicts of interest
Case text (Anonymised)
The editor in chief received a letter to the editor criticising a paper published earlier in the journal. The editor first told the author of the letter that he would publish the commentary after he had given the authors of the criticised paper a chance to respond. When asked by the author of the letter, he later added that he would also publish the letter if the authors failed to respond.
The corresponding author of the paper explained that the same person had attacked every single article from his group for about 5 years, that they had responded to the critics adequately in the past and declined doing so again in this instance. He portrayed the letter as a disingenuous and fraudulent commentary and asked that we do not publish the letter, which in his view would be a disservice to science.
He attached to his email a correspondence with the editor of another journal, detailing a similar case for one of his previous articles. He also copied in four editors of other journals who received similar commentaries from the same person, as well as one opinion leader in the field. The four editors had rejected the letters and two had banned the author of the letters from publishing in their journal. One of these editors replied to confirm the story, stating that in his view, the letter he had received was not founded on fact, and backed the request not to publish this new commentary.
At this stage, the editor of our journal contacted me as managing editor to ask if he could reject the letter outright. I advised that he could, but only based on the scientific merit of the letter, and not on the history of its author. He sent the letter for review to the associate editor who handled the criticised paper, and who briefly concluded that the commentary was probably not worth publishing. The editor then rejected the letter, initially mentioning various peer reviewers, when in fact there was only one short set of comments.
The author of the letter was quite irate as, based on the editor’s initial replies, he expected his letter to be published in any case (with or without a response from the authors) and found the peer review process and decision letter that he received unsatisfactory. A first clarification of our position resulted in a long threatening point-by-point response, to which the editor responded by reasserting his position and clarifying again why the letter had been reviewed by a referee and himself and subsequently rejected.
The author of the letter then changed tactics and sent the publisher a rather libellous letter in which he argued that the editor is incompetent, was not impartial and was influenced by the author of the article; that the author of the paper and the peer reviewer (whose identity he does not know) have undisclosed conflicts of interest; and that opposite interests and prevalent opinions, relayed by a mainstream advocacy group and the WHO, colluded to silence him, a whistleblower. One of the assumed conflicts of interest mentioned involve the head of an institution from which the authors received a grant and is therefore very indirect. Another, however, relates to a global advocacy group, endorsed by the WHO and which seems to reflect the predominant opinion in the field, and which the authors presumably belong to. The corresponding author of the paper calls this group a forum for exchange on the topic, but it has a clear health policy agenda. The authors did not mention this in their declaration of interest.
Our publisher informed him that she was taking his concerns seriously and would ask me to investigate in accordance with COPE’s guidelines, particularly in relation to our disclosure policy. Although the author of the letter accused us of being in breach of the COPE policy on fair peer review in an earlier correspondence, he then replied that in this case COPE’s ‘concepts’ are meaningless and, for example, anonymous peer review or impartiality are impossible, since he is the only researcher “who has exposed a long series of frauds” on the topic. He went on to reiterate his request that we (a) do not contact the authors of the paper he criticised (he was initially fine with the authors responding to his critique), (b) ask referees specifically if they belong to the advocacy group discussed above and (c) send, if needed, his blinded manuscript to ‘independent’ (from the advocacy group mentioned and industries) reviewers, of which he proposes three names.
We have not replied to this last email and decided to seek COPE’s advice on how to best close the case and what we should have done better earlier. In particular, I'd be interested in your opinion on:
— how the editor should have communicated with the author of the letter in the first place? What are the main weaknesses in our handling of the case?
— if the authors of the criticised paper belong to an advocacy group, should they disclose this in their declaration of interest section?
— how to respond to the author of the letter about allegations of unfair peer review, and his rejection of a blinded peer review system?
— should we, and how could we, check whether the author of the letter is genuinely trying to make valid points against prevalent opinion?
— on the other hand, should he have an undisclosed agenda, should we take any action against him?
His letters and emails are often unconvincing, based on assumptions, defamatory and threatening, and he seems to belong to an opposite advocacy groups without disclosing it. In addition, the bulk of his contributions to the literature is made of commentaries criticising articles but he does not appear to publish any original research himself.
The COPE Code of Conduct states that editors must be willing to consider cogent criticisms of work published in their journal. However, the editor needs to decide if this is “cogent criticism” or not. The Forum suggested there were three issues here: (1) whether the editor should publish the letter; (2) the undisclosed conflict of interest of the authors; and (3) the defamation of the editor on websites.
Regarding whether the editor should publish the letter, the Forum noted that editors have a duty to publish letters unless they are factually incorrect or libellous, and it is the responsibility of the editor to make that decision. Some of the members of the Forum argued that an editor should veer towards publishing everything, while others noted that there are different types of letters in different journals and it is not always appropriate to publish. However, all agreed that the editor should not make false claims (saying that the letter would be published with or without a response from the authors and then going back on that decision) and that the journal needs to tighten its editorial processes. The journal should have a clear process for handling letters. Are they peer-reviewed? The decision to publish a letter should be based solely on its academic merit.
Regarding the undisclosed conflict of interest of the authors, the editor should contact the authors directly and ask them to respond to this accusation and emphasise that non-financial conflicts of interest are also very important. If it transpires that the authors do have a conflict of interest, the editor could publish a correction. The editor should also check the journal’s policy on this issue.
On the third point, if an editor is defamed on a blog or website, what can he do? Some suggested a dignified silence as the best option as otherwise it can fuel the problem and encourage more debate. However, all agreed that if the accusations are potentially libellous then the editor should seek legal advice.
I contacted Dr C, the author of the letter, to let him know that his case had been discussed at the COPE Forum and to reiterate our decision not to publish his letter. Most members present, if not all, supported the view that the editor in chief can reject a letter or commentary at his discretion. I sent a brief overview of the discussion and explained that the COPE Forum was of the opinion that declarations of interest should relate only to direct potential conflicts of interest. That meant that the disclosure in the criticised paper was satisfactory and appropriate.
The remaining question concerned the author’s role within an ‘advocacy group’.
I said we would contact the author and ask him to clarify the purpose of the group, their involvement in it and whether they think it might be a conflict of interest. We would then assess their response against our current requirements regarding declarations of interest.
Dr C quickly sent a couple of inflammatory emails in his usual style, where he repeated that there is a “universal conflict of interest that must be disclosed” because 90% of authors, editors and reviewers belong to the same bias ‘advocacy group.’ He then went on to contradict himself and, in my view, invalidate his only claim which may have had some merit:
“I would like to clarify that [the group] is absolutely not an ‘advocacy/regulatory group’. To take a modern example, it is something like Facebook where authors [...] advertise and publish the kind of publication that I have criticised in details for their flaws. In that case I don’t really see what the problem is.”
I intended to get the author’s opinion on this but have not pursued the matter.
I’ve not heard anything more from Dr C since and consider the case closed.