A prospective author contacted the editorial office of a medical journal to request that an intended submission was not reviewed or consulted on by experts involved in a number of published guidelines on the topic of the paper. The author named some of these experts, which included members of the journal’s editorial board (including editor A).
The author justified this request by explaining that his paper disagrees with the published guidelines, and therefore he believed that the experts who contributed to the guidelines would “likely to be very negative and possibly biased”. The author stated that these experts, including some members of the editorial board, may have a conflict of interest. The author stated that his request is permitted by COPE.
The author was asked by the editorial office to submit his paper with the letter that detailed his request. The author did submit the paper with an abridged letter, as he believed that the original letter was not appropriate to submit with the paper. The abridged letter makes the same request, but does not specifically name the experts.
The journal’s policy is for all reviewers and editorial board members to declare any conflicts of interest when commenting on a paper, so that their comments can be taken in the context of their conflict. If reviewers or editors do not feel they can be impartial, then they would be asked not to contribute to the editorial process for the paper.
To provide further context, the author has submitted three papers to the journal previously, which have been rejected. The most recent submission was unsuccessfully appealed. The author’s letter to the editorial office refers to the papers previously rejected by the journal and outlines where they have been accepted for publication and the positive feedback the author has received from outside parties. The author points out that this feedback is “in stark contrast to the very critical comments” from the journal’s editorial board. The author has submitted letters to the journal, which have been published. One of these letters was in response to a paper published by the journal and authored by editor A. After submission of the paper the author emailed the editorial office with the comments: “I am sure that [the journal] will make sure that this manuscript is treated judiciously and justly. I humbly request that [the journal] should make sure that any criticism by editors and reviewers is specific, clearly explained and justifiable. However, if significant errors remain in this regard and if as a result an important debate and patient safety takes a backseat then I will probably need to make a formal complaint to [the journal] against the paper by [editor A] in the interest of patient safety. It is my duty to express my concern that such a complaint could possibly potentially have significant repercussions for the author [editor A].’
In light of these comments the journal is keen to ensure that the author has no grounds for complaint against the journal.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Can an author request for certain experts not to be involved in reviewing their paper?
• By not involving experts that could be particularly negative, is the journal then giving the paper an unfair advantage?
This case provoked a lot of discussion. The Forum had concerns that the researcher is being overly aggressive, and is behaving in a threatening way and holding the journal to ransom, possibly related to his past history with the journal. The advice was for the journal to take a tough stance and stand by its policies and procedures.
The answer to the question “can an author request for certain experts not to be involved in reviewing their paper?” is yes—the author is entitled to make this request, but the editor does not have to feel bound to exclude specific reviewers. Otherwise there is potential manipulation of the peer review system by the author. The author should give reasons for his requests. Some noted that it depends on how many experts the author asks not to be involved in reviewing the paper. Some journals put a limit on the number of reviewers that can be recommended/request not to review. If the author requests a lot of reviewers to be excluded, then this could raise concerns.
Many journals allow authors to specify "non-preferred" individuals at submission, but no guarantee is given that the editor will exclude those individuals, especially if they are considered the expert in the field. If an editor does contact non-preferred reviewers, other reviewers are also included. A non-preferred individual should not handle a paper as editor.
The Forum noted that these types of situations can end badly if the author has certain expectations. Hence a suggestion was to inform the author that the journal will do their best to accommodate his requests, the journal will conduct an unbiased and professional peer review process which may include some of the editorial board members if they have expertise in this field, and the editors will have the final decision. If the author is not happy with these conditions, then he should be invited to consider withdrawing his paper and submitting it to another journal.
Some cautioned that the author should be given the benefit of the doubt given that academic rivalries and feuds are not uncommon. If the author's study is flawed, other independent experts should be able to point out the flaws. Also, there are occasions when a potential reviewer has made a public statement prejudicial to the content or has a conflict of interest known to the author. If a reviewer is highly visible or is known to have a stance on a particular controversial topic, it is reasonable for an author not to want to have his paper reviewed by this person if the paper takes a contrary view or does not support this point of view, but it is also up to the editor to use his discretion. This can also be difficult in very small fields.
Another view was to ask author if the author agrees to formal open peer review—the reviewers are named, and perhaps the reviews are even uploaded as supplementary files if the paper is published. But others argued that you should not change journal processes for one paper. Also, there is a danger that this may provoke the author further if the reviewers he suggested are involved in the review of his paper. Also, editors have a duty to protect their reviewers.
The Editors decided to comply with the author’s request. The manuscript was rejected, based on two peer-review reports and opinions from 11 editors. The author was told that the journal had complied with the request, and that advice had been sought from COPE. The author subsequently appealed the decision; this was not upheld.
In light of this, the editorial board were asked to create a policy for handling requests to exclude individuals from the journal’s editorial process. The following has been added to the journal’s editorial policy: “We reserve the right to send manuscripts to the reviewers of our choice”. The editor considers the case closed.