Suspicion of breach of proper peer reviewer behaviour
Case text (Anonymised)
An author submitted a paper for peer review with journal X on a topic that refers to a very recently published paper (ie, highly timely). The peer review was rather protracted because of long response times, reviewer substitution and the need to re-review the manuscript after a major revision.
Just before the second decision was rendered, the author contacted the editor-in-chief with a serious concern that the accepted standards of peer review had been compromised: specifically, the author had just seen, in an online version of journal Y, an article that was very similar in many places to the article that he/she has submitted to journal X. The author suspected that one of the peer reviewers had either taken personal advantage of the opportunity or passed the paper on to another scientist who was either the author of the first published paper or a close contact.
The editor-in-chief compared the two papers, noted striking similarities in two large sections (also mirrored by the order of reference citation in those sections) but assured the author—without revealing the identity of the peer reviewers of his/her paper—that there was no obvious connection between the reviewers and the author of the first published paper (a PubMed search for coauthorship and a Google search for association of names revealed no connection whatsoever).
The author thought of other ways in which the similarity could have arisen and finally remembered having submitted a grant proposal with very similar wording, which might have been reviewed by the other author. That, and the assurances from the editor-in-chief, put the case to rest.
However, what should/could the editor-in-chief have done to resolve the matter had the suspicion of breach of peer review confidentiality or personal benefit been more likely (ie, likely enough to suggest more background research)? How could such a case be resolved to the satisfaction of the author (ie, such that the true precedence of his/her work would be recognised by readers in contrast with that of the opportunist author)?
The Forum suggested that the editor should follow the flowchart on “What to do if you suspect a reviewer has appropriated an author’s idea or data” in such cases. Even if the other journal has published the paper first, the editor can consult the submission dates for confirmation. The first journal would then have to retract the paper on the grounds of plagiarism, if indeed this had been investigated and proven by the institution. It is hoped that the journal would follow the COPE guidelines on retraction. Since the journal’s review process was exonerated, it is really up to the author to pursue the matter and the editor should encourage the author to do this. The author and/or editor could consider contacting the grant giving body as well as the reviewer’s institution and ask them to investigate. The editor should also contact the editor of the journal that published the possibly plagiarised work and inform him/her of the situation.