Online posting of confidential draft by peer reviewer

Case number:
13-15

Case Audio:
Audio

Case text (Anonymised)

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?

Advice: 

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.

Follow up: 

As recommended by COPE, the editor’s posted a note on the case in the journal, presenting an account of the events.

Resolution: 
Case Closed
Year: 

Comments

  • Posted by joe schmoe, phd, 28/2/2014 5.16pm

I think the authors and journal should actively pursue legal action against people who are essentially "publishing" their work. Say this was a piece of fiction for the NYer and (who cares who), MTV-monthly published it w/o the consent of the NYer or the author --can't they sue for that? it's like stealing, there is copyright involved.

  • Posted by Karen Shashok, 11/4/2014 11.15am

This appears to be an open-and-shut case of reviewer misconduct and blatant disregard for publication ethics by the campaign group. It could be argued that reviewer A, in failing to respond to repeated requests for clarification, has forfeited his or her "right" to anonymity. The (blameless) author's and journal's interests are being harmed by this situation, but the apparently intentional misdeeds by the reviewer and campaign group are not having any negative or corrective consequences for these two actors. Surely something is not right here.

The author is now exposed to a risk of future interference, by an unidentified individual, with his/her efforts to publish legitimate research. Perhaps the editor should reconsider whether the benefits to the author of letting him or her know the reviewer's identity should take precedence over the "moral" benefits to the journal of sticking with the rule of nondisclosure.

"COPE also suggested that editors should exercise caution when using reviewers who are not affiliated to a university."

This is overgeneralization -- like claiming that open access is a warning sign that the journal might not have acceptable quality standards. Lots of people in my profession, for example (STM translator, authors' editor, technical editor), are unafilliated (self-employed) but have been providing reviews to journals for years. Now that it has become so hard to find good reviewers, excluding a large pool of potential reviewers simply because they have no affiliation doesn't seem like a good direction to go. Perhaps it would be better for journals to obtain better contact info (and perhaps even references) on each of their reviewers before adding them to their database.

  • Posted by Lee H, 16/4/2014 10.16am

If any of my reviewers did this I would take the following action as Editor. I would write to them and tell them they are no longer a reviewer and would post the same in the editorial of the journal with reason. I would let all my fellow editors know what had happened and who had done it and encourage them to not use the said reviewer. i would also writ to the Times Higher with details and hope they publish the letter and encourage follow-up comments. In short vilify the reviewer. I would also get everyone I could to contact the website that had published the material in a constant stream of harassment until they had apologised for publishing something they had no right to publish, and, of course take the paper down.