In 2016, group A published manuscript X in our journal. In early 2017, group B submitted a comment critical of the published manuscript. Following peer review, in accordance with the journal’s then active policy, the comment was rejected from further consideration. The policy allowed for the author of the original article to be one of the peer reviewers of the comment.
The lead author of group A, acting as one of the three referees for the comment, indicated in their confidential comments to the editor that group A would be submitting a correction to address issues arising from the comment. Group A duly submitted and published a correction to manuscript X. Soon after, the journal was contacted by a legal representative of group B to express their concern over the publication of the correction by group A. The representative indicated a concern that the unpublished comment submitted to the journal contributed in part to the submission and publication of the correction. Group B researchers considered that the submission of their comment under the journal’s then active comment/reply policy had allowed the authors of the correction to prepare their manuscript using material that they had been privy to only via their involvement in the peer review of the comment, and that this fact had not been acknowledged in the correction.
Group B requested the journal withdraw the correction and re-open the peer review of the comment. As the journal’s management team considered that the first request would leave an error in the scientific record uncorrected and the second request was unlikely to result in a change of outcome, the journal instead investigated the matter raised by the representative Group B, with the goal of preparing a new correction for publication to take into account the facts of the matter following the investigation.
The investigation identified an error on the part of the administrative team that contributed to this situation; namely, failing to ensure the authors of the correction provided due acknowledgement of the provenance of the correction. As part of the investigation, the journal contacted group A for their input. The authors agreed they should have included an acknowledgement, but not having seen similar acknowledgements on other corrections published by the journal declined to include one in their correction. However, group A also noted that they had exchanged email correspondence with group B, prior to the submission of the comment, about some of the matters subsequently included in the comment. Group A have been at pains to stress that their correction was not primarily prompted by the comment.
The journal has engaged with both parties to find a mutually agreed statement on the chain of events that contributed to the publication of the correction, with a view to republishing the correction to clarify both the scientific record and the sequence of events. This has resulted in a great deal of time and effort being expended on several draft statements prepared by the journal over the previous 14 months.
As the matter remains unresolved between the two groups, the journal’s team has elected to publish nothing at all. The groups have been informed of this, and that the journal remains amenable to publishing a statement if the two parties are able to agree a form of words between themselves.
Nevertheless, the publisher regularly reviews its working practices and editorial policies, and this case has contributed to a change of the policies enacted by the publisher to reduce the likelihood of similar sequences of events and outcomes in future. Taking our experience in this case into account and aiming to address potential future conflicts of interest in submitted comments, a new comment/reply policy has been adopted. In hindsight, the previous comment/reply policy was problematic for a number of reasons, including the potential conflict of interest in having the author of the original paper being involved in the peer review of the submitted comment.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Given the apparent impossibility of the two parties agreeing a form of words, and the threats of legal action and publishing their own version elsewhere, is the journal justified in choosing NOT to publish anything? Would it be better to publish the journal’s view anyway and accept the potential risks?
• While recognising the publisher’s original comment/reply policy contributed to this matter, does the Forum have any advice on how the publisher/journal could or should handle similar disputes in future? The policy has been amended to reduce the possibility of conflicts of interest.
• How far should the publisher go in trying to resolve disputes between groups (especially where, as in this case, only one party has actually published in the journal)?
The Forum agreed with the way the journal had handled this difficult situation, and that the editors had done a good job here.
One suggestion was that when the journal changed its policy, it may have been a good idea to explain why, in an editorial, which could have included anonymised details from the case and the reasons for the change in policy.
Another suggestion was that the journal could have been more transparent upfront when rejecting the comment. They may have been able to head off the dispute if they had informed the authors their reasons for doing so and explained what the journal then intended to do.