The ethics of using privileged information

Case number:
09-12

Case text (Anonymised)

A paper published in one of our journals (paper A) provoked the submission of a correspondence article claiming that a minor conclusion of the paper was a misinterpretation and erroneous. The point in contention was a question of zoomorphology and our paper’s conclusions were based on analysis using a non-invasive technique while the rebuttal relied on more traditional techniques. We are bringing this case to COPE because although it appears to be in the process of being amicably resolved, with a clear resolution of the scientific issues, it has highlighted an area of confusion about the use of privileged information.

The authors’ of the correspondence article (rebutting authors) originally expressed anger and surprise that the paper A contained this error, because they thought they had clearly laid the issue to rest in an earlier rebuttal of a previously published paper making similar errors (paper B). Although this first rebuttal had not yet appeared in print, it had been considered and accepted for publication by the one of the authors of paper A, in his/her capacity as the editor of another journal. Furthermore, this first rebuttal not only challenged the findings of paper B, it also specifically called into question the interpretation of some website data which was included (unmodified) in paper A.

We sent the correspondence article for peer review, and the reviewers supported the soundness of the rebuttal data presented and the alternative morphological interpretation. The reviewers appeared inclined towards the view that the perpetuation of the “wrong” interpretation in paper A was surprising and did not reflect well on the authors of paper A. However, they also indicated that given the close chronology of the various publications, this was a grey area, and not germane to the scientific case for publishing the second rebuttal. We therefore asked the correspondence authors to revise their text to keep the focus on resolving the scientific questions.

Having decided we should, in principle, accept and publish the correspondence article, the authors of paper A were invited to submit a signed response. In this they have clearly acknowledged that the data presented by the authors in both their rebuttals fully support the conclusions reached in these rebuttals and that some of their own data had been misinterpreted in paper A. They also explained that they were already convinced by the first rebuttal which one author had seen in his/her capacity as an editor, and the other had reviewed. However, they had felt it would not be ethical to make use of this privileged information to modify their own paper (paper A) shortly before final acceptance.

We are inclined to accept this as the personal view of the authors of paper A but question whether they adopted the best ethical course.

Questions for COPE
• What is COPE’s view?
• How should editors and reviewers proceed when they have access to privileged information which suggests that their own work should be modified or corrected?
• Is there an ethical responsibility to avoid letting known errors into the scientific literature which was transgressed in this case?

Advice: 

The Forum questioned the authors’ use of the term “privileged information”. The Forum agreed that the authors had acted wrongly. They could have delayed publication of their paper until after the information was in the public domain. The authors should have contacted the publisher and asked them to hold back on publication, explaining the reasons why. Although there was no major misconduct, a correction should appear in the journal (in addition to the correspondence) so that the article will be permanently linked to it.

Follow up: 

The case was successfully and amicably resolved. All parties found the advice from COPE very helpful.

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