In a single blind peer review process, a reviewer gave an author detailed suggestions about improvements in the statistical analysis. The author was asked to revise and resubmit the paper to address these and other reviewers' suggestions. The author, unaware of the reviewer’s identity, subsequently approached the reviewer as a respected colleague at a professional meeting to discuss the manuscript revision. During this conversation, to avoid having to pretend to go over their own suggestions as if they were from someone else, the reviewer disclosed that they were one of the reviewers. The author and reviewer discussed how to improve the manuscript, and at this point, the reviewer offered to assist with new statistical analyses they had recommended and become a co-author, which was agreeable to the author.
Before proceeding, the reviewer disclosed this interaction and her intention to the journal editors and the associate editor handling the paper. We determined to reject the manuscript because of the breach of confidentiality and the conflict of interest between the reviewer’s role as reviewer and proposed role as co-author. They will presumably submit the co-authored paper to another journal.
Although the proposed transition from peer reviewer to co-author is clearly inappropriate, some of the early steps leading up to this are less clear. COPE guidance for peer reviewers (https://publicationethics.org/files/Peer%20review%20guidelines.pdf) recommends that reviewers not contact the authors directly without the permission of the journal but provides no guidance about how to handle a situation in which an author, in good faith, approaches the reviewer. This may be particularly common in smaller scientific communities.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Does the reviewer have an obligation to conceal their status when asked by the author?
• Alternately, would it be better to acknowledge their status as a reviewer but decline to comment further?
• How should a reviewer handle having an author unknowingly approach them to discuss a manuscript?
Does the journal have instructions for their reviewers regarding revealing their identity? Should this be up to reviewers to decide? The Forum felt this was an unusual case and there does not appear to be any guidance available on this issue. The Forum questioned whether it was fair on the part of the reviewer to have to conceal their identity and go along with the pretence and is perhaps unrealistic in an academic environment.
What we want to encourage is transparency in the peer review process. Ideally the reviewer should have contacted the journal to discuss the situation. However, it seems a harsh decision to reject the article because of an inadvertent scientific interaction between researchers and colleagues. If the reviewer had contacted the journal, he/she could have recused themselves from the review process and an independent reviewer been invited to review the paper. Any subsequent revision that included the reviewer as a new author could have been properly scrutinised and put through the peer review process.
The editors wrote back to the authors to offer the opportunity to resubmit the manuscript with the involved reviewer now as a co-author, after which it would receive new independent review. However, the authors had already sent it elsewhere.
The editors consider the case closed.