More than a breach of confidentiality?
Case text (Anonymised)
A journal received two manuscripts on the same topic in short succession.
Manuscript A was rejected after peer review; manuscript B, submitted a few months later, was accepted after peer review. When manuscript B was published, author X contacted the journal to express concern about similarities between both papers and the fact that the first had been rejected and the second accepted. The journal investigated and found that one of the reviewers of manuscript A worked in the same laboratory with one of the authors of manuscript B.
The journal was further notified that manuscript A, while under peer review, had been discussed in a journal club at reviewer P’s and author Y’s laboratory. Both author Y and reviewer P, when confronted with these allegations, admitted the incident and apologised but said it had been a lapse with no ill intent.
The journal’s editor-in-chief informed author Y and reviewer P that their behaviour was considered a serious breach of confidence and that they would be removed from the journal’s list of peer reviewers. The editor-in-chief also considered informing the institution but decided against it at this point in time.
The journal also decided to review its process for monitoring peer reviewers’ competing interests and to educate their editorial board about the need for confidentiality.
Should the journal have informed the institution and asked for further investigation?
The Forum noted that it is very difficult to sort out what has been happening in this case and so advised contacting the authors’ and reviewers’ institutions. There are three institutions involved and the Forum suggested informing the institutions of the details of the case so that they are aware of the situation. Discussion of papers in journal clubs, while perhaps not uncommon, is not acceptable behaviour. The Forum also advised the journal to review their journal policy on reviewers, making it clear that they should declare any conflicts of interest.
The editor informed the Forum that two further papers had been submitted to the journal. The reviewer has submitted a paper and asked that the authors of paper A be excluded from reviewing it, and the authors of paper B have submitted a second paper, including the reviewer of paper A. The Forum advised that editors should take into consideration authors’ requests but the editor cannot always comply with the authors’ wishes to exclude the use of a particular reviewer. The Forum advised making a decision on whether to accept or reject the two new papers based on their scientific merit.
The journal followed the advice of the Forum, and a letter was written to the institution of author Y and reviewer P, advising them of the breach of confidentiality. The letter was acknowledged by the institution and an apology made. The author and reviewer have now been barred from reviewing from the journal for a period of 3 years. Submissions from the parties involved will be judged on scientific merit.
The journal also reviewed its policies and further reinforced its wording to reviewers to declare any conflict of interest before accepting an invitation to review a manuscript.
The policy of the journal to honour any reasonable request by an author to exclude a reviewer will be continued, while noting any unusual or unreasonable requests, and investigating them accordingly.
The journal thanks the Forum for the advice offered which has helped with the resolution of the problem.