Our journal published a manuscript as part of an editors’ forum which, as an invited forum paper, received reviewer feedback but did not follow our usual double-blind peer review standard for regular submissions (the reviewers were aware of the author’s identity but the author did not know the identity of the reviewers).
Following the publication of this article, the editor-in-chief received correspondence from a reader (hereon referred to as the “scholar”), who indicated he (used generically for simplicity without implication of the author’s or scholar’s gender) had contacted the original author directly and was concerned about the data used in the paper. The author also emailed the journal to advise us of his correspondence with the scholar, which had made him aware of oversights in data collection.
The original author provided a revised paper and drafted a corrigendum which was edited and published as an erratum in a subsequent issue of the journal. The scholar was given the opportunity to read the erratum prior to publication. After publication of the erratum, the scholar continued to vocalise his concern that it still misrepresented the author’s data and offered readers misleading conclusions, and he remained frustrated over the original author’s unwillingness to share the dataset despite his request for it.
The scholar complained to the editor-in-chief of the journal that the author ignored his many email messages and asked the editor-in-chief to pass on his concerns. After consulting with another editor of the journal and deciding that it was not the journal’s place to be involved in such disputes, the editor-in-chief talked with the author by phone and asked the author to correspond with the scholar directly about this issue. The editor-in-chief also told the scholar that the journal could not be the go-between in passing messages from one to the other but would consider a written response to the published erratum so that the debate would be in the public domain. They were encouraged to talk to each other directly.
We received the response article from the concerned scholar outlining his points of contention, which was intended for publication with the understanding that the original author would be given an opportunity to reply if he chose (but the scholar would not be offered space for a further rejoinder). We provided the original author with the scholar’s response article, and he prepared a reply. The scholar was then given an opportunity to read the original author’s reply to point out any factual errors in need of correction, and he again felt the reply article would be misleading to readers as well as misrepresentative of his own claims. He further raised concerns about a flawed review system, not only in regards to the original article not being reviewed double-blind, but also to the editing process for his versus the original author’s latest reply articles (both were edited—primarily proofreading in nature—by the editor-in-chief and another editor).
At this time, the editor-in-chief has contacted both the scholar and original author simultaneously in the hope of encouraging them to work together with shared data to produce a new paper (if, indeed, a re-analysis leads to new results). Should they not choose to pursue this, the journal intends to publish the scholar’s reply and original author’s response, likely alongside a final word from the editor-in-chief. Any response or outcome along these lines is still pending.
How might editors ensure the integrity of data beyond the safeguards built into the normal manuscript review process? What role should the editor play when authors refuse to share their data? More generally, how should editors address concerns of readers who remain aggrieved by authors’ responses to readers’ commentary on an erratum provoked by questions raised by said readers in the first instance?
Following discussion with the officers of COPE, the summary of advice is as follows:
1. Double blind review is not always possible. For example, in small fields, most people can easily know the author of a piece of work. Also, there is no evidence that double-blind review is better than single-blind or non-blind reviews.
2. The editor cannot possibly double check the accuracy of the data in every paper and thus it is a good policy for the editor to allow readers a forum to voice their concerns about the published work.
3. The editor has the right to decide what gets published in the journal in light of the mission of the journal, its style, and the space constraints.
4. There is a point where a critique/concern becomes an opinion. The editor has the right to decide when the disputants have had the chance to voice their views and when it has reached the point for the readers to judge the merit of the grievance or responses from the published comments.
5. I have given the reader the courtesy and opportunity to voice his/her view.
Does the Forum agree with the officers’ advice and is there anything more I should do?
The Forum agreed with the officers’ advice. All agreed that the effort on the part of the editor to publish the debate was sufficient. The editor raised the issue of data sharing and the Forum were told that at the COPE council meeting, council had discussed this issue and were considering drafting a discussion paper to outline the issues. The editor was told that some journals (eg the BMJ) now publish a data sharing statement on all papers, which states whether or not the authors are prepared to share their data, with links to the data as appropriate.