One of the figures in an article under review was said by the authors to appear in a presentation given at a conference while the paper was still under review and from this identified the reviewer and accused this person of abusing their position. We could not confirm to the authors that they had correctly identified the reviewer. The authors contacted the reviewer directly and also contacted the Brain office.
When contacted by our office, the reviewer confirmed that s/he did use some data previously presented by this group of authors but in no way used this figure and did credit the authors. The reviewer had deleted the slides of the talk when I asked for them. The authors claim that the figure presented by the reviewer was identical to that in their paper under review and could not have been created using any of their previously presented data.
The referee was removed from the list of reviewers for this article and told why, although the reviewer insists that no figure was used from this paper. The authors wanted us to remove the referee from our database completely and when we disagreed with this, withdrew their article. They have since requested to reinstate the article. (The editor declined this request as the paper was unlikely to be recommended for publication in any case for scientific reasons).
The authors of the paper used to work in the same group as the reviewer and did not wish for the reviewer to be professionally harmed by the incident and therefore the department wasn't informed. The Editor of our journal does not think the issue should be taken any further. I am bringing the case to have some opinion on how others would have handled the situation.
Bearing in mind that the authors did not the reviewer to be professionally affected, the actions we took were to:
remove the reviewer from this submission
offer not to send any future submissions from these authors to this reviewer
contact the reviewer to explain the accusation.
The reviewer was wholly apologetic that there had been any misunderstanding and assured us that s/he takes the confidentiality of the review process very seriously.
This case regarding the conduct of a reviewer prompted mixed views from the committee. Some argued that the reviewer should be permanently removed from the journal’s list while others argued that such action was too harsh. Bearing in mind that there was no hard evidence, most agreed that the editor had acted correctly. On balance, there was general approval for the editor and his actions.
The editor has had no further contact from the authors or the referee. The referee has not been used since by the journal, although he has not officially been removed from the database. The authors made no comment when the editor told them the advice they had received from COPE. The editor still feels he was right not to remove the referee from the database. The journal considers the case closed.