Is it a breach of confidentiality to send letters to the editor to criticised authors for comment?

Case number:

Case text (Anonymised)

(presented by Liz Wager on behalf of an author)
(NB: COPE doesn’t normally discuss cases from non-members but as this raised some interesting general points, we thought it would be interesting to hear Forum’s views)

According to the COPE guidelines, editors should “ensure the quality of published material… publish cogent criticisms from readers… [and] ensure research articles conform to ethical guidelines”. Yet, editors enjoy an (almost) absolute power and are barely accountable. I describe here how a Letter to the Editor submitted by myself to a COPE member journal was rejected only after it was forwarded by the editor to the concerned authors purportedly to get a reply.

In that letter, I pointed out the omission of a relevant reference which I considered was deliberate. I was also concerned that the article represented duplicate publication (which was supported by evidence from Déjà Vu)

I submitted the letter to the editor in December 2008. One month later, I got a rejection letter in which the editor-in-chief expressed his reluctance to expose “not strictly scientific aspects”. I immediately appealed this decision only to get the rejection confirmed in April 2009 on the basis of the explanations offered to the editor by the concerned authors. Thus the editor seems to have violated the confidentiality of my unpublished letter in forwarding it to the authors only to ultimately reject it.

My question to COPE is, should editors treat submitted material as confidential, or is it acceptable for them to show it to the authors of the work criticised, even if they have no intention of publishing it?

  • mThe question posed was “did the editor breach confidentiality?” Some members of the Forum said that in their instructions to authors they make it clear that they will send the letter to the criticised author but will not necessarily publish the letter. If an author is making a serious allegation of misconduct, most agreed that the letter should be anonymised when it is sent to the criticised authors. However, if it is a straightforward matter (ie simply critiquing or commenting on the published research), then most thought there was no need to anonymise the letter. While most agreed that the editor should not have dismissed the issue, the consensus was that it was not a breach of confidentiality. The author did not submit the letter in confidence so he should be prepared for it to be seen by the the criticised authors regardless of whether or not it was subsequently published.
Follow up: 

The author published the letter in another journal.