A journal received a complaint by one of the co-authors of an article submitted by a research team, stating that one of the reviewers suggested by the corresponding author sent an email to corresponding author asking them to tell them what comments they should insert in their review. In response, the corresponding author asked the co-authors to propose comments to be sent to the reviewer. One of the co-authors put together a number of minor comments which they sent to the corresponding author. The corresponding author sent the comments to the reviewer. The reviewer submitted these comments to the editorial office as their own review and recommended a minor revision decision.
The journal has established the materiality of this misconduct after contacting the complainant and the other co-authors. The journal has a copy of the emails exchanged at the time between the reviewer and the corresponding author, the corresponding author and the co-authors, and the email to the corresponding author by the co-author who wrote the comments. The journal has not yet contacted the corresponding author or the reviewer.
The journal believes this is a case of peer review manipulation in which both the corresponding author and the reviewer have acted in an unethical manner. The editor is considering requesting the authors to withdraw the article based on this breach of ethics. The manuscript has been reviewed by another reviewer, also suggested by the corresponding author, who apparently did not contact the corresponding author. This second reviewer also recommended minor revision. The journal has not contacted the second reviewer.
The complainant initially sent their complaint to the ministry of research where the research was conducted, who asked them to contact the publisher. The journal has not contacted the person in the ministry.
Question for the Forum
- What action should the journal take?
The Forum advised that the editor might wish to look at the COPE flowchart on Peer review manipulation suspected during the peer review process, and other COPE flowcharts on peer review.
Firstly, the editor should report the authors and reviewers to their institutions. The institution needs to reprimand the authors and reviewers, explaining that this behaviour is unethical and unacceptable. For these types of breaches of publication ethics, such as manipulation of the peer review process, automatic rejection of the article is usually appropriate.
The Forum noted that journals should make it clear to reviewers what is expected of them and that they must comply with the journal’s policies and ethics. No discussion between reviewers and authors is generally permitted. Some journals require that editors and reviewers must declare if they have previously discussed the manuscript with the authors. The editor should review their instructions to reviewers ensuring they clearly outline the expectations of reviewers. Does the journal have an explicit ethics statement on their website regarding the peer review process or are authors required to agree with an ethics statement on the website at submission? The editor may wish to educate the authors and reviewers, to help them understand why it is necessary to adhere to the high standards of the peer review process. The editor might wish to further investigate how this situation arose. Were the authors junior researchers? Were they aware of the ethical standards required of reviewers and authors?
The journal should take some responsibility for using only the reviewers suggested by the authors. This is a common weakness with author suggested reviewers that can lead to fake reviewers or collusion with authors. The editor should rigorously check the conflicts of interests of reviewers to see if they have previously worked at the same institutions as the authors. Have they co-authored publications with the authors in the past 3-5 years? Studies have also shown that author suggested reviewers are more lenient than editor suggested reviewers. If editors rely solely on author suggested reviewers, they risk undermining the integrity of the peer review process.
The Forum advised that the editor should look at any other papers that were reviewed by this reviewer, or that were written by these authors, to rule out any other instances of this kind.
COPE does not advocate banning authors or reviewers from future review or submissions because of the legal implications. However, journals can consider removing unethical reviewers from their reviewer pool.