Personal remarks within a post-publication literature forum

Case number: 
08-13

Case text (Anonymised)

We publish an online service in which faculty members (well reputed clinicians and researchers) select, rate and evaluate influential articles of their choice. Members of the faculty can submit “dissents” to evaluations: dissents are to the fact that an article is selected, as opposed to any specific faculty member’s evaluation. The original faculty members who wrote the evaluation are then allowed to respond with a “follow-up”.

Member A submitted an evaluation of an article (all evaluations are positive, by default, although criticisms are encouraged). There were six other such evaluations. Member B wrote a “dissent”. There was one other “dissent”.

Member A decided to respond to Member B with a “follow-up”. In the follow-up, he specifically mentions Member B. Although it was a bit petulant, we decided to publish it as it did make a true scientific point. Both faculty members were informed of the publication.

Member B was very unhappy with Member A’s comments, which he felt were personal and demeaning. He threatened to resign from the faculty.

We decided that we were wrong to publish the petulant comments of Member A; we should have edited them so they were less emotive and not directed specifically at another Member (as is our approach with dissents).

We suggested to Member B that we would take the “follow-up” comment offline, edit it so it was less personal, send the edited version to faculty Member A for approval (explaining only that we feel the words were too emotive), give him the chance to edit them further and then send the final version to him (Member B) to “check”, although we made it clear that he had no power to veto it, but rather to ensure that the edited comments were not seen as personal anymore. He agreed to the approach.

We did all of the above. Member A was happy to have his comments edited, we showed it to Member B who was happy with how it read, and we published it.

Member B has now agreed not to resign and is considering whether to respond to Member A’s comments.

We are keen to have debate around whether an article truly is of value, which is why we encourage “dissents” (we also invite authors to respond to any criticisms). However, we need to be conscious that our faculty volunteer their time for free and may be discouraged from participating if they get into a public spat. We would like COPE’s opinion and guidance on how we dealt with this case, and if we should have done anything differently. For instance:

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Were we right to remove the initial “follow-up” comment from the site?

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Should we have been more open with Member A as to why we were asking to edit his words?

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Should we have a policy on the “tone” of dissents and follow-ups, or is this just common sense (ie, keep it civil and constructive)?

Was there anything else we should have considered?

Advice: 

The Forum commented that it is inevitable that you will get personal comments in this type of situation when reviewers are evaluating articles chosen by other people. However, the Forum agreed that both members were perhaps a bit petty. Some argued that the follow-up comments should have been edited initially to remove the personal comments before posting on the website. Others agreed that the editor should have been more open with member A and told him the reasons for editing his commentary. However, in the end, both reviewers were happy and so the Forum congratulated the editor for his handling of the situation. The Forum noted that perhaps we have to accept that sometimes an editor may to moderate what people say but reviewers should be expected to conform to the normal scientific instructions for contributors.

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