The first author of a paper rejected by our journal publicly identified one of the four peer reviewers for the paper by name. She did this during a media interview conducted after the paper was published by another journal. The first author implied in that interview and subsequently on Twitter that the paper was rejected because of that person's review and also claimed the reviewer did not reveal relevant COIs.
This complaint received a great deal of attention because the rejected paper had a direct bearing on a very bitter medical/political matter, and its results were felt to bolster the case for one faction. The authors had not lodged a formal complaint with our journal about this matter. We usually do not comment on papers that we do not publish, so when contacted by the press about this accusation our initial response was to "neither confirm nor deny" that we had considered the paper. It soon became clear, however, that the reviewer was the subject of much unpleasant comment on social media and other vindictive behaviour. A colleague of the reviewer, for example, tweeted that he was "ashamed" to be a professor in the same institution as the reviewer. The reviewer also received two freedom of information requests asking for any correspondence with the journal and anybody else concerning the rejected paper.
What the journal did:
1. We immediately contacted the authors to let them know we were disappointed in their behaviour. The authors acknowledged their mistake and had already contacted the reviewer to apologise. The reviewer accepted the apology but expressed the hope that we would make his review public, saying "I am continuing to get emails from people who are assuming that I wrote negative reviews for the paper and raising questions about conflict of interest. I believe my reviews to have been supportive of publication and not to comment on whether the journal should accept or not. So from my point of view it would be helpful if you could publish my reviews regardless of whether the other reviewers agree to this..."
2. The other reviewers and the authors agreed that we could make this matter public, so we broke with precedent and published a blog. We received mostly positive comments on Twitter and in the comments section for the blog.
3. We have also amended our instructions for authors on the journal website to say "For rejected research papers, we expect that authors will keep the identity and comments of peer reviewers confidential. They may, however, share the peer review comments (although not peer reviewer names) in confidence with other journals. Authors should contact the editor who handled their paper if they have any complaints about the peer review process or the behaviour of the peer reviewers."
4. We have also amended our rejection letters to say "Although the journal has an open peer review process, in which authors know who the peer reviewers were, we expect that you will keep the identity and comments of the peer reviewers for this paper confidential. You may, however, share the peer review comments in confidence (although not the names of the peer reviewers) with other journals to which you submit the paper. If you have any complaints about the peer review process or the conduct of the peer reviewers, please contact the editor who handled your paper. Please do not contact the peer reviewers directly."
5. We continue to follow-up periodically with the reviewer to make sure he is not suffering any additional ill effects from this incident.
6. We are submitting this case to COPE and will also be referring it to the journal's internal ethics committee. The matter now seems to have died down, but it raises many questions.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the journal have handled this differently?
• Should the journal formally notify the first author's institution about her behaviour?
• Are the additional instructions to authors on our website and in rejection letters adequate? Should we do anything else to prevent this from happening again?
• Should peer reviewers who do research in the same field as authors of a paper declare this as a COI? If so, when? Almost all reviewers are chosen because they have expertise in the same field, and commonly their conclusions have differed in some respects from those of the authors. At present very few reviewers list this among their COIs.
The Forum agreed that the journal did a good job here, and has taken reasonable steps to change their process and avoid a similar situation in future
The Forum discussed whether the author was under pressure by a media interview and gave a comment afterwards for which they later apologised, or was it deliberate on the part of the author as the paper was published in another journal and this was an “attack” on the reviewer for the journal that rejected the paper. The Forum was ambivalent on whether the first author's institution should be contacted. It is possible that the institution is already aware of the case (because of the media coverage) but the institution could be contacted in neutral terms although it is unlikely that the journal could expect much action from them.
Regarding conflicts of interest, being in the same field is not in itself a conflict of interest—in fact it is usually a reason to pick a reviewer. Because experts in the same field have interests that are similar, they may unfairly be perceived to have a conflict of interest. However, sometimes reviewers do have conflicts of interest so it may be helpful to include instructions with some clarifying exemplars to help reviewers to identify conflicts of interest. For example, if a researcher has built a career on a particular view and are ‘famous’ for holding that view, that could be a conflict of interest. The advice was to ensure that the journal’s guidelines to reviewers regarding conflicts of interest are up to date. The COPE discussion document may be helpful in this regard (http://publicationethics.org/files/u7140/Discussion_document__on_handling_competing_interests.pdf)