Case text (Anonymised)
We have received threats of legal action from the authors of a manuscript rejected by our journal, henceforth referred to as journal A. These “aggrieved” authors claim that their manuscript was unfairly reviewed by a close competitor, who then used some of their findings in a paper subsequently published in journal B, without either attribution or citation.
The “accused” scientist had indeed reviewed the paper for journal A, and the date on which he/she had first been sent the paper preceded that of his/her own submission to journal B. The steps of our investigation were as follows:
The aggrieved author was asked to provide additional details on which aspect of his work he/she suspected of being unethically used, and he/she identified a particular paragraph in journal B’s paper, which named two genes which our authors claimed to have identified for the first time in the particular bacterial genus studied in both papers.
Meanwhile, the “accused” scientist was asked to respond to the accusation. His response identified the paragraph in question as being a small area of overlap between the two papers, however, he categorically denied that the content of this paragraph drew in any way on the information presented in the manuscript which he had reviewed for journal A. The accused backed up this denial by sending us a copy of an earlier version of the paper, which had been submitted to and rejected by a previous journal (journal C) months before he had first reviewed the complainant’s paper in journal A.
We confirmed this by contacting the editors of journal C who, after obtaining permission, provided us with an independent copy of the manuscript that had been submitted to his journal. On examination we found that the paragraph in question had remained unchanged, and that the description of the two genes was indeed present before any submission to journal A took place.
We agreed with the accused that this data analysis was a very minor part of the paper published in journal B.
Questions for COPE
• At this point, we feel that our investigation has exonerated the accused reviewer of one allegation (unethically using information obtained during the peer review process in his/her own publication). Does COPE agree?
• If the manuscript submitted to journal C (providing independent confirmation of the accused’s defence) had not been available, how would such a case be investigated?
• The other allegation (of the reviewer causing the authors’ manuscript to be unfairly rejected) remains unresolved. The reviewer denies misconduct, but there is at least the appearance of misconduct on the basis of conflict of interest. However, we do not think that any further investigation can resolve this issue. Does COPE agree?
• The aggrieved authors have asked for a correction to acknowledge their work (which was published in yet another journal one month before journal B published its article). While the reviewer did not “steal” any data or ideas, he may have unfairly “squashed” the authors’ publication. However, the data analysis in question is a very minor point in the article published in journal B, and the authors’ work may simply be independent corroboration. At this time we do not feel a correction is warranted because we have no evidence of wrongdoing. Does COPE agree?
• Are there other options that might be used in place of a correction?
The Forum agreed that the accused reviewer had been exonerated. The advice from the Forum was that the editor should obtain permission from the reviewer to contact the authors, tell them that their allegations were unfounded and explain the situation to them. The authors should be informed that the reviewer has given his permission for this disclosure as the editor is not obliged to reveal the names of reviewers if the journal operates a closed peer review system. The editor might also suggest that the authors may like to consider an apology to the reviewer. However, some Forum members voiced concerns that the reviewer did have a conflict of issue and that he should have declared this initially.
The reviewer was notified (as were the editors of the other journals) that he had been exonerated, with thanks for his patience and for his cooperation throughout the investigation. The author was also contacted and told that the reviewer had been exonerated. The authors did not formally apologise to the reviewer.