An author submitted a Forum manuscript critiquing an article published in the journal six years previously. The Forum manuscript was reviewed by three reviewers who all recommended rejection, and was evaluated by an associate editor and a senior editor, who rejected the manuscript on the grounds that the reviewers were unconvinced by the critique and felt that it did not really advance the subject.
The author appealed the decision and the decision was upheld, but the author was informed that a different critique of the published paper which sufficiently advances the debate and moves the topic forward in a constructive manner could be considered again. The author informed us that they intended to make the version of the manuscript as submitted publicly available online along with the reviews and a commentary on the issues raised, prior to submission to a journal with open peer review. The author requested the journal’s consent for the review comments to be made public under CC licence.
We declined permission to publish the reviews and explained that the journal operates a confidential single blind review process. Reviewers are informed that their names will not be revealed to the authors unless they choose to sign their review at the end of their comments and are told that the manuscript and all correspondence relating to it should be treated as confidential. We do not currently allow reviewers to publish their own review comments for accepted manuscripts.
The author has asked to see the guidance published by the journal which imposes specific confidentiality on authors regarding the confidential treatment of reviews. We currently offer no such guidance to authors but we do link to our publisher’s guidelines on publication ethics on the submission site for the journal which states: “If discussions between an author, editor, and peer reviewer have taken place in confidence they should remain in confidence unless explicit consent has been given by all parties, or unless there are exceptional circumstances”.
Given that the journal operates a confidential single blind review process, this guidance applies to the treatment of reviews. We believe that this position is consistent with COPE’s Ethical Guidelines for Reviewers, which provides that they should “respect the confidentiality of peer review and not reveal any details of a manuscript or its review.” We recognise that the author guidelines on our website could be more explicit and we intend to update our guidelines to provide greater clarity. The journal’s stance is that the reviews were solicited and submitted by the reviewers as part of a confidential review process and no notification was provided to the reviewers that their review comments could be published. None of the reviewers chose to sign their reviews for this manuscript.
In line with the COPE discussion document “Who owns peer reviews?” we therefore feel it is not appropriate to allow the review comments to be published in any form as reviewers were not informed about potential publication of review comments prior to agreeing to review the manuscript. The author disagrees with this stance and has requested that the issue be presented to COPE.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What further action, if any, should be taken by the journal?
An update to the Forum was that the author has submitted a complaint to COPE directly. He is ready to go live with a public website, with a copy of his paper along with the reviews.
The Forum agreed that the journal is acting within its current guidelines. However, they could indicate to the author they will consider this issue for future papers, but they cannot go back and retrospectively change what was in place when this paper was reviewed. Hence the Forum agreed that the journal has done all it can and no further action is needed here. A suggestion was to review the journal’s instructions to authors and instructions to reviewers to ensure the guidance regarding publishing reviews is very clear.
The Forum discussed the wider issue of who owns the peer reviews. Copyright is with the reviewer unless it is formally transferred to the author. However, if all parties consent (journal, author, reviewers) then the reviews can be made public. The Forum also discussed transferring reviewer reports to another journal when a manuscript has been rejected. Some journals advocate this but no names are attached to the review. The Forum warned against confusing open peer review and confidentiality.
After we contacted the author with an update on the outcome of the COPE Forum discussion, the author informed us that they decided to publish the reviews on their personal website. We notified the reviewers and editors involved with the case, and emailed the author to remind them that the publishing of reviews had been done without our consent but we do not intend to pursue the matter further. We now consider the case closed.