The author of an accepted research paper (that showed some benefits for a controversial treatment) contacted the journal shortly prior to publication of the paper. It is the policy of our journal not to share commissioned editorials with authors ahead of time. This author had, however, received a copy of the journal press release in preparation for a press briefing. The press release quoted statements from a commissioned accompanying editorial that concluded that "a clinically useful effect [for the treatment] remains uncertain..." and pointed out some shortcomings of the paper.
The author contacted the editorialist directly to obtain the full text of the editorial, and complained to the editorialist and the journal about its content. The editorial was revised to take some but not all of his complaints into account. The author requested that he be allowed to read the revised editorial and suggested that it should be sent for peer review. These requests were refused.
However, at a press briefing just prior to publication, the authors saw a final version of the revised editorial. They contacted the journal and indicated they were dissatisfied with the revised editorial. They asked to have a lengthy letter rebutting the editorial posted online simultaneously with publication of the editorial.
They were directed to follow normal procedures for posting a response to a paper, which includes waiting until it is published and adhering to other standard procedures for commentary on a published paper. The authors were not satisfied with this suggestion. After negotiation, a compromise was reached which allowed posting of a longer than usual letter the morning after the editorial went online.
Questions for the COPE Forum
• Does the Forum think it is good practice to share the content of linked editorials with the authors of the relevant paper? Should the journal change its long-standing policy not to share?
• What is the Forum’s view on whether commissioned editorials should be sent for peer review? If not routinely, then should that have been done in this case?
• How should the journal respond to the behaviour of the lead author? Contacting the editorialist directly to obtain a copy of the editorial, and corresponding with that person directly over the holidays, is not typical behaviour and clearly made the editorialist feel uncomfortable.
• The journal declined to publish the authors' rapid response alongside the editorial when it went online. The journal decided that the authors should go through the usual process of posting a rapid response to the editorial after publication, and that it should be vetted in the usual way. Was this the right decision?
• Should the journal have allowed the editorial authors to see this very critical rapid response before publication, so they had the chance to respond quickly?
The Forum suggested that journals do have a journalistic role—they commission editorials—and hence have a right to voice their view. However, it is important to manage expectations, to ensure all parties are aware of the situation and the process for linked editorials, and to treat everyone the same. For example, were the authors aware they might have a commissioned editorial on their paper and that this would not be shared with them before publication? It can be alarming for authors if they do not know there is going to be a press release related to their article, especially as the author contact details are often in the press release so that they can be contacted for interview by the media. If it is a third party issuing the press release, there is little the journal can do. For high profile research, with extracts from the paper leaked, it can provide an opportunity for the author to influence process. In these situations, the journal can only manage expectations in relation to its own journal processes.
The Forum agreed it is fine for authors to have the right of reply post publication (via comments/rapid response) if that is made clear in the journal policies, and as long as the editorial is appropriate and fair. Some journals limit communication to one round of exchanges only, published online or in print.
If it is a straightforward commentary, it should not need to be peer-reviewed. Standard practice is not to peer review commentaries. Several Forum members stated that standard practice in their journal was for authors not to see linked editorials or commentaries, although authors are informed there is a linked commentary to their article. Informing authors is important, especially if there is a delay in publication or if the two articles are published simultaneously.
If a journal thinks an editorial might be controversial, the editor should consider having it peer-reviewed. Many journals have provenance statements, indicating whether or not an article has been peer-reviewed. The editorial can be peer-reviewed by the reviewers of the original article, or it may be appropriate to use different reviewers if the piece is very critical of the original article.
In summary, the editors should manage the expectations of the authors by having guidelines in place for their process of issuing press releases and how they alert authors, along with their policies for handling post publication commentaries. The process needs to be very clear so that the authors are not taken unawares.
We discussed the matter with our internal ethics committee who were supportive of the journal’s approach to linked editorials—specifically, they agreed that the journal should not share them before publication. We have now started writing to the authors of papers scheduled for press release, explaining why we do not share, and asking them not to contact editorialists directly. Our press officer has agreed not to put links to editorials in the press release sent to paper authors for approval. The link goes back in before release to journalists.
We have been sending authors these letters for several months, and the editorials’ editors have commented that "most authors seem appreciative”.
The editor considers the case closed.