Breach of peer review confidentiality

Case number: 
10-25

Case text (Anonymised)

This case concerns a submitted review article that proposes a new theory in a field of research where there are two polarised positions.

The original manuscript (R0) underwent peer review and was returned with reports indicating a major revision, which took several months. On submission of the revision, one of the reviewers from the previous round was asked to re-review. That reviewer (reviewer A) declined but provided a suggestion for an alternative reviewer (reviewer B). The editor invited reviewer B, who agreed to review the revised manuscript (R1).

Reviewer B delayed reviewing the paper, but finally submitted the review after a reminder from the editor. That review was one of two that were returned for manuscript R1. The other review was complimentary and suggested a very minor revision.

The editor included the reviews with a decision letter to the author explaining that it appeared that certain important aspects of the paper were not yet in order, or representative of a genuine division of opinion in the community, and asking for clarification. The contact author recognised one of the reviewer reports (reviewer B) as identical to that from reviewer A from the R0 round of peer review. Clearly, at this point, the author and editor could only assume that the confidentiality of peer review had been broken between reviewer A and reviewer B, but also that further misconduct/incompetence had occurred between the two.

The editor put this point to reviewer B for clarification, and the reviewer replied (after a delay of 3 days) that he/she did not know what the editor was talking about. With that email reply, reviewer B included a different report with the words of explanation "THIS is my report on the manuscript".

In good faith, and preserving anonymity, the editor forwarded that "second" report from reviewer B to the contact author whereupon the author replied that even that report referred to concepts that were no longer present, or no longer presented in such terms, in the revised manuscript. That observation further added to the author's and editor's concern that the revised manuscript had not been judged properly, or even at all, by reviewer B, and that the process of peer review had been compromised in several ways.

An inevitable conclusion is that the peer review of this manuscript was compromised in respect of the confidentiality and proper conduct that is expected of peer reviewers. Although it is often possible for a second round reviewer to see—verbatim—the report of a previous reviewer included with the author’s response letter, this was not the case with the above manuscript. The editor double checked the manuscript submission system: the verbatim version of reviewer A's report was not included with the author’s response that reviewer B was able to see, although the author did address reviewer A's points in that response. Therefore, the editor can only assume that the first report that reviewer B submitted actually came from, or by way of, reviewer A.
Furthermore, the second report from reviewer B refers to concepts that were in the R0 version of the manuscript, but not in the R1 version, hence indicating that reviewer B had reported on the wrong manuscript, which he/she could only have obtained via reviewer A.

On receiving feedback on the second reviewer B report from the author (ie, that it must refer to the R0 manuscript instead of the R1), the editor emailed reviewer B, laying out the events and concerns, as described above. The email ended with the following observation: “Both the contact author and the editor have important concerns about the peer review of this manuscript: ie, that it has been compromised in serious ways that might even have influenced the careers of the younger authors. Clearly, the proper review of manuscripts in a journal that maintains confidential peer review is of paramount importance, given the lack of knowledge that the author has as to who has reviewed his/her paper. I trust that you appreciate my concerns”.

The editor received no reply but has marked both reviewer A and reviewer B as excluded reviewers in the manuscript submission system, and has made the case and identity of the reviewers known to his publishing department. From the course of events, it is highly likely (although not provable), that reviewers A and B conspired to get the manuscript rejected. What further action is necessary/advisable?

Advice: 

The Forum agreed that breach of confidentiality is a serious matter and should be investigated. As the editor confirmed that the instructions to reviewers in his journal stress the confidentiality of reports, it does appear very likely that reviewer A did breach confidentiality. The editor should contact reviewer A and ask for an explanation. It may be that this was an honest mistake and reviewer A thought s/he was being helpful in forwarding the report to reviewer B. However, if the editor has clear evidence that the reviewers behaved inappropriately, he should contact their institution and request an investigation. He should also tell the reviewers that they have been excluded from the journal’s manuscript submission system. The editor should also contact the authors and assure them that he is investigating the case and that the journal takes reviewer confidentiality seriously.

The Forum also suggested that the editor may like to write an editorial on this issue in general, after the case has been resolved.

Follow up: 

The editor tried to contact the other reviewer but received no reply. He has continued to exclude the reviewers from the journal’s manuscript submission system (both as potential reviewers and as potential authors). The editor also communicated the problem to the rest of his department.

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