Soon after rejecting a paper—after it underwent peer review but before discussion at the manuscript meeting—the author wrote to tell me that he was asked questions “about the manuscript” at a presentation at a national meeting. The author stated: “A member of the audience addressed questions to me from a copy of the manuscript, and not from the talk I gave. I had to ask him to say nothing further and that reading from the unpublished manuscript was not appropriate, particularly with the manufacturer [of the drug] present who continues to press us for the data. I then realised that this person had a copy of our manuscript because they were either a reviewer or a reviewer had given them a copy”.
Our journal has an open review policy so the author was aware of the identity of the reviewers and knew that the person who asked the question was not one of the reviewers. The authors are concerned that one of the reviewers may be a colleague or collaborator with the person who asked the question.
After receiving the author’s letter, I emailed the two reviewers to inform them of our concern about confidentiality and to ask if they shared the manuscript or its contents and, if so, how and why. Within a few hours, both reviewers replied that they kept the paper confidential and did not share it with anyone else. We take their assertions as valid and true, as we do with so many other statements by authors and reviewers.
I informed the authors about the outcome of my investigation. I also suggested that if they still think that a reviewer may have broken confidentiality, they might wish to contact the editors of the other two journals where the paper was reviewed before submission to us as well as the editor of the journal currently reviewing the manuscript.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
(1) Do you think that the journal handled this correctly?
There seems to have been some form of breach of confidentiality, but it is not clear where this has occurred. Sometimes reviewers do share papers with colleagues or students, but this is breaking confidentiality. As there is no strong evidence that a reviewer at this journal did in fact break confidentiality, the Forum cautioned about making allegations with the lack of evidence. Also, the editor noted that the paper has been through several journals, so if there was a breach, it could have happened at any of the journals, or it could even have occurred at a grant review for example.
The Forum agreed that the editor has done all he can to ensure there was no breach of confidentiality at his journal. Of course, the author may wish to pursue it further, but there is nothing more for the editor to do.
The editor noted that the instructions to authors in his journal do carry a clear message that reviewers should inform the journal if anyone else is involved in the review process, and that reviewers should maintain confidentiality.
The Forum noted that COPE does have a set of guidelines for reviewers "Ethical guidelines for peer reviewers" and would recommend them to all editors. They have been very well received and are a very useful resource for editors and reviewers. Editors may like to include them in their instructions for reviewers.
The editor considers the case now closed.