I am seeking advice on a confidential ‘letter of concern’ from an author (X) of a manuscript submitted before I was appointed editor of the journal but rejected by me on the advice of the associate editor.
Author X is concerned with similarities or parallels between his manuscript, rejected in 2008, and a recently published article. I have looked over our file and contacted the associate editor who handled the manuscript. One of the authors of the published article, author Y, was in fact a reviewer of the manuscript by author X and recommended rejection, as did two other reviewers. In the opinion of the associate editor, there are clear parallels between the article by author Y and the manuscript by author X, but these seem to be the result of common research interests rather than appropriation of ideas or data.
Author Y has published previously on this subject. Both authors X and Y are well established scientists, although from somewhat different disciplines. At this point, it is my view that author Y should have declared a conflict of interest in the review of the manuscript but has not appropriated ideas or data. Unfortunately, our system at the time of this review did not include explicit guidelines on conflicts of interest. I can also imagine that the reviewer would have assumed that his overlapping interests were obvious from his previous publications.
My options seem to be the following:
(1) Reply to author X, acknowledging the parallels but communicating the view of the associate editor that there has not been appropriation of ideas or data. (To acknowledge the apparent undeclared conflict of interest would seem to violate reviewer Y’s anonymity.).
(2) As above, but ask author X if he wishes to make a more formal complaint (waiving his own confidentiality), in which case we would need more specific details about the suspected appropriation of ideas or data.
(3) Write first to reviewer Y and request a response to the ‘letter of concern’. However, I do not think this is appropriate, given that author X indicated his communication was confidential.
I have consulted the COPE flowchart but find that the issue of a conflict of interest is not well covered.
The Forum agreed that this was a case of reviewer misconduct and the editor should follow the flowchart on ‘What to do if you suspect reviewer misconduct’. The editor should contact author X and ask him to provide as much evidence as possible and then the editor can assess the situation. The Forum agreed that the editor’s best course of action was (2) above. If the case cannot be resolved, the editor might consider contacting the author’s institution.
A separate issue is that author Y should have declared a conflict of interest in the review of the manuscript and the Forum agreed that the editor could contact author Y informing him of this.