As editor of journal A I am handling a manuscript by an author and it is likely to be accepted, although this is not yet decided. As a reviewer for journal B, I have since been asked to review a manuscript by the same author that uses similar material and comes to a similar conclusion, but pushes the presentation of the results a little further. My gut feeling is that there is insufficient novelty for journal B. However, my problem is how do I tell journal B without compromising my role as editor of journal A?
Following advice from a COPE council member, I decided to review the manuscript for the second journal and in my comments to the authors I suggested that in order to sharpen their conclusions this study might be better embedded in a larger study. In my covering note to the editor, I wrote “Unfortunately, there may be an ethical issue to do with this manuscript. I have consulted COPE, without of course mentioning the journal, the authors or the subject of the research, but they cannot bring it to their Forum until March, which is long after the review deadline”.
The “larger study” that I mentioned is the work that is under review in the first journal. The covering note to the editor does not breach confidentiality with respect to the first journal but it does alert the editor of the second journal that there “may” be a problem and that he or she can decide to wait for a decision by the Forum.
I have since found out that Journal 2 has now rejected the manuscript, with another reviewer’s report identifying the same general scientific problems as I did in my comments to the authors. So, my cautionary covering note to the editor about a potential conflict of interest seems not to have been needed.
Does the Forum think that I handled the situation correctly or is there anything else I could have done?
The Forum agreed that the editor acted correctly by raising his conflict of interest although some suggested it might have been easier to tell the other editor that he could not review the paper as he was reviewing a similar paper submitted to his own journal by the same author. The Forum noted that it is fine for an editor to raise a problem with another editor. The Forum did raise the ethical issue of the author failing to declare a similar paper submitted to another journal. Most journals would require a copy of the other article. Had the author signed a form to say that the work was not under consideration at any other journal? It may be the case that the editor should review his guidelines to authors to ensure that such guidance is clear.