Compromised peer review (unpublished)
Case text (Anonymised)
A manuscript was flagged to editor X as having received reviewers’ reports indicating very high interest. At that point the manuscript had been through one round of review, revision and re-review, and all three reviewers were advising that the manuscript be accepted without further revision.
On checking the credentials of the three reviewers, editor X was unable to find the publication record of any of them. All three reviewers were found to have been suggested by the authors. Institutions were given for the suggested authors but the supplied email addresses were all with webmail services. The reviewers were found not to exist.
Associate editor Y had invited the author suggested reviewers and two of their own choosing, neither of whom had replied to the invitation.
After it was determined that the reviewer suggestions were faked, a previous publication by the same authors with the same ‘fake’ reviewers was identified.
Following the recommendations of COPE regarding a recent similar case discussed at the COPE Forum (case number 12-12), all of the authors were contacted to ask if they could supply more details of the suggested reviewers, but they have not responded. We have attempted to find a contact at the authors’ institution. It has proved difficult to identify a research ethics committee, any individual senior member of the university or contacts for the university administration. During other searches, a vice principal of the university was identified but was found to be the senior author on both manuscripts.
We are now seeking guidance on the best course of action with regard to both the unpublished and published manuscripts, in the absence of any response from the authors and no reliable contacts at the authors’ institution. Our current intention is to reject the manuscript under review and issue a retraction of the published article.
The Forum agreed that this case was brought about by the failure of journal processes and their peer review system. Good practice is always to check the names, addresses and email contacts of reviewers, and especially those that are recommended by authors. Editors should never use only the preferred reviewer. While the Forum recognise that finding reviewers can be difficult and that the peer review system can be hard, simple checks can avoid a similar situation in the future. The Forum agreed that the publisher should take some responsibility as it is their duty to support their editors. The editorial office clearly needs guidance and step by step procedures.
Then there is the issue of the author trying to defraud the system. The advice was to continue to try and contact the author and the author’s institution, and inform them of the situation, explaining the author’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour. The author should be told that that if no response is received, then the previous paper will be retracted. Other advice was to consider re-reviewing the published article.
It was also suggested that the editor might consider writing an editorial on this issue.
The case was also discussed at the North American Forum (18 October 2012). Additional advice was to require an institutional email address in addition to a webmail address for any suggested reviewers and for editors to send correspondence to both addresses. Another suggestion was to verify the webmail address with an IP address route trace, which the participant suggested was relatively simple and could be performed by anyone if there were no IT department to assist with the task.
With regard to the specific manuscripts in this case, the one that was under review has been rejected with a warning to the authors that the activity was unacceptable. For the published manuscript, we have had discussions with the editor concerned but the final resolution of the case is still in progress. We have received no response from the authors and no success in finding contacts in their institution, although we are pursuing another avenue to try and identify one.
More generally we have had some broad discussions in the company about preventing future cases. There are some short-term fixes in progress and more comprehensive plans for technical additions to our systems that should help prevent these and other forms of author misconduct that will come about in the new year.
Update (June 2013)
For the published manuscript we followed COPE advice and conducted post-publication peer review. The editorial board member who reviewed the manuscript found flaws with the article and we will now take steps to retract it.
However, given the sensitive nature of this retraction for the journal in question, we would also like to accompany it with an explanatory editorial.
We have made a number of technical changes to our systems. On submission, where authors suggest potential peer reviewers we issue this warning: “Intentionally falsifying information, for example, suggesting reviewers with a false name or email address, will result in the manuscript being rejected.”
When a manuscript is shared with an external editor to invite potential reviewers, we also make it clear that they should check that reviewers suggested by the authors have the expertise necessary to carry out a proper assessment of the manuscript if they are invited to peer review.
The IP address tip was very useful and we did find that the IP address of the reviewer ‘matched’ that of the author in this case. We are thinking of developing an automatic warning system such that if a peer reviewer returns a report on a manuscript with an IP address that matches that of the authors, then the peer review process is halted.
We now consider this case closed and will proceed to issue a retraction with accompanying editorial shortly.