Shortly before publication, I received an email from the authors of a systematic review telling me that a version of the paper as first submitted to the journal for peer review had appeared on the website of a campaign group based in the USA. It was clear that the version of the document posted on the website was the same as the version supplied to the journal's peer reviewers. Further investigation showed that one of the three peer reviewers (reviewer A) who initially advised on the paper is also named as a member of the board of directors of the campaign group. The journal operates an anonymous peer review system.
I emailed all three peer reviewers asking for an explanation as to how the confidential draft appeared on the website. Reviewers B and C replied within a few hours, disclaiming all knowledge, as I expected. Reviewer A has failed to reply. I also emailed the senior directors of the campaign group, asking them to remove the confidential draft from their website, and inviting them to replace it with the definitive paper, which had in the meantime been published. They did not reply. The directors have since been sent a letter from our publisher's lawyers asking for the confidential document to be removed—with reviewer A also sent a copy—on the grounds of breech of copyright. They have not replied. The lawyers are continuing to pursue legal avenues for getting the draft removed from the website.
In normal circumstances, I would contact reviewer A's institution and request an investigation. However, reviewer A is unaffiliated, so I cannot follow this course. On our manuscript tracking database, we have removed reviewer A's role as a peer reviewer, with a note explaining the circumstances, so that he should not be used as a peer reviewer again.
I have received frequent emails from the lead author of the paper, asking for a resolution of the matter. The author has requested that I give her the name of reviewer A, so that she can ask that he is excluded from peer reviewing her papers in the future. I have declined to do this on the grounds that it would be a further breach of confidentiality.
Question for the COPE Forum
Is there any more that can be done to obtain an explanation from reviewer A, or to satisfy the authors that we have investigated the matter to the limits of the journal's powers?
This case was not discussed at the Forum. Council instead gave the following advice on this case.
Council agreed that the editor had done all he could in trying to contact reviewer A and eliciting a response from him, and in attempting to have the paper removed from the website of the campaign group.
Council agreed that the emphasis should now be in dealing with the aggrieved author and in correcting the public record. The suggestion was to add a notice of concern to the paper on the website giving a clear account of the events. The editor should state the facts in a dispassionate manner:
- the paper appears on the website of a campaign group with neither the authors’ nor the journal’s agreement;
- this occurred during the peer review process and without the authors’ permission;
- the journal has repeatedly asked for the article to be taken down.
The editor should also respond to the author telling him that he plans to make a public statement on the website and stating that he now feels that he has done all that he can to progress this case. The editor might like to list all the steps he has taken to have the article removed, detailing the times he has tried to contact the reviewer and the campaign website.
COPE would advise against releasing the names of reviewers for journals that have a confidential peer review system, even if a breach of confidentiality is suspected. COPE also suggested that editors should exercise caution when using reviewers who are not affiliated to a university.
As recommended by COPE, the editor’s posted a note on the case in the journal, presenting an account of the events.