Confidentiality breach by an associate editor
Case text (Anonymised)
The authors of a manuscript sent an official complaint to our journal regarding a breach of confidentiality by an associate editor (AE). The authors had been informed by the supervisor of a reviewer of a manuscript. After submission of the review, the reviewer received a confidential email from AE asking whether the favourable recommendation made by the reviewer would have been different if the reviewer had been aware that the group submitting the manuscript had been recently queried by two journals on ethical issues. The reviewer (junior member of a research group) did not respond to the email of AE but informed her supervisor. The supervisor informed the authors and the authors filed a formal complaint.
The journal acknowledged receipt of the complaint and requested details and evidence of the accusations against AE. The editor received an email from the supervisor of the reviewer confirming the facts, as well as an edited copy of the email send by AE to the reviewer.
We informed AE of the complaint and our investigation of the allegation concerning a follow-up email send by AE to one of the reviewers of the manuscript informing them of the past history of the author group.
We asked AE for comments and an explanation, and told him that manuscripts will not be assigned until a resolution has been reached.
The reply from AE contained apologies for the "wrong behaviour" and a plea to be able to continue his work as AE. At no point was the resignation of AE offered to the journal.
The editor and editorial team (deputy editors and managing editor) have considered all aspects and have come to the conclusion that collaboration with AE should be stopped.
Has the COPE Forum any additional comments? Have similar cases been submitted?
The Forum were told that the journal provides formal training for associate editors so there was no question that the associate editor was aware that their behaviour was wrong. The editor believes that professional competition was the motive of the associate editor. All agreed that the associate editor should have declared a conflict of interest and excused him/herself from the review process. The Forum advised that it is up to the editor to make the decision, and that he needs to consider how valuable he believes the associate editor is, and how likely they are to repeat this behaviour? Can the editor trust the associate editor now? The Forum suggested that the editor might re-emphasise the journal’s policy on conflicts of interest to the other associate editors.
The editorial team was unanimous in their decisions to stop collaboration with the associate editor and, regretfully, the collaboration stopped. The confidentiality issue was discussed with incoming associate editors during an annual associate editor course but this experience convinced the editors to emphasise the issue even more.