Who ensures the integrity of the editor?

Case number:
99-22

Case text (Anonymised)

An editor came across a letter from the editor-in-chief of his journal to a reviewer that asserted he had recommended the acceptance of a manuscript. He had in fact recommended the opposite, both verbally and in writing. The paper in question was a guideline on the therapeutic choices for a relatively common medical condition. The authors had claimed their conclusions and therapeutic recommendations were “evidencebased” and recommended a new, expensive medication as first-line treatment. The reviews of the manuscript were mixed. One reviewer made only a few comments and recommended publication. The second reviewer expressed concern about an apparent bias and suspected there had been pharmaceutical company involvement in the writing of the paper. When the manuscript was reviewed at the regular meeting of scientific editors, the editor recommended rejecting the manuscript and this was written down in the manuscript “log.” The editor-in-chief decided to request a third review, this time from a guidelines expert. In the meantime, the principal author had spoken at length with the editor-in-chief. Although the expert reviewer expressed concerns about the manuscript, the editor-in-chief chose to accept the manuscript for publication. In accordance with journal policy, the reviewers were notified that the manuscript had been accepted, prompting the second reviewer to again express concern about bias. The editor-in-chief replied, saying that the editor had recommended publication. Under the previous editor-in-chief, there had been a formal policy with the professional body with which the journal was associated, outlining the journal’s editorial freedom. But after he left this began to change. A memo was sent from the association stipulating that any editorial material published in the journal from the association should have an elected official as the author, even if a researcher on staff or a scientific committee had written it.The editor questioned this policy on the basis that it was at odds with the definition of authorship by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).The editor-in-chief ignored these concerns. Shortly thereafter, the association’s CEO announced that no letters should be published in the association’s journal that criticised association policy. The editor-in-chief initially stated to the journal staff that he disagreed with this and requested that any such letters be directed to him. He assured staff that if he thought these letters merited publication, he would discuss them with the CEO. Since then, no letter criticising association policy has been published. When a scientific editor submits an article to his own journal, the policy was that another scientific editor would handle the manuscript; likewise, the fate of the manuscript would be made known to the author/editor in a confidential manner. The editor had co-authored a manuscript with another researcher and had submitted it to the journal for consideration. Several months later, in a meeting of copy editors and publication staff to discuss the placement of accepted manuscripts, the editor-in-chief announced that the reviewers had recommended rejection. He had not informed the editor beforehand. In actual fact, none of the original reviewers had recommended rejecting the paper. Manuscripts that had not been accepted were not usually discussed at these meetings and such behaviour contravened the ICMJE recommendations. The editor-in-chief said he would request another opinion before he made the final decision. When the co-author of the paper wrote, asking when the final decision would be taken, the editor in chief accused the editor of breaching confidentiality but wrote to the co-author assuring him that the manuscript would be treated fairly and promptly. The editor did not send out the manuscript for another opinion for almost two weeks.When he did, he identified in the covering letter that “he would elect to reject the manuscript” but sought the reviewer’s opinion. However, two days earlier, he had sent a letter to one of the original reviewers asking him to write a “single or several papers” on the exact same topic. About two weeks later, the editor-in-chief rejected our manuscript, apologising for the delay, and noting “we had some difficulty finding a person to give an editorial opinion of the review.” In a further instance, the editor was asked to review a manuscript for the journal that purported to be an evidence-based guideline. The other reviewers included the previous editor of the journal and an outside reviewer. The editor identified several concerns and included suggestions on how the manuscript could be strengthened; the previous editor gave very similar feedback. The third reviewer had only a few superficial comments, such as a title change. However, the editor-in-chief requested an additional review from an expert in evidence-based medicine, but accepted the manuscript with minor revisions, including the title change, before receiving these comments. Later, the additional review came in, seriously questioning the evidence base of the manuscript, but it was never sent to the author. The manuscript was published with minor revisions. The editor was sacked. The staff were told only that confidentiality precluded giving an explanation; unofficially it was intimated that he had simply been too difficult to get along with. The journal is still publishing, and the relationship between the Association and the Journal is increasingly intimate. There appears to have been a Faustian bargain made between the CEO of the Association and the editor-in-chief of the Journal whereby, in exchange for compromising editorial freedom in sensitive areas for the Association, he could publish what he wanted without feeling constrained by the usual editorial standards. _ If feedback from peer review is ignored, who will know? Most journal editors work in relative isolation and there is virtually no quality control. _ Who polices the relationship between a science-based association and its journal, a relationship that has its own particular set of challenges, involving both scientific and political elements. _ What can be done to stop/prevent corruption within the editorial office of a scientific publication, an issue that has virtually escaped discussion and consideration within the scientific community? _ What will it take to create the political will to ensure the integrity of scientific editors? _ There is often no way to formally investigate and address alleged abuses of editorial power, especially if these abuses are in the interests of the publisher or parent organisation.

Advice: 

The editor has acted as a whistleblower and has been fired as a result. _ This raises several questions about the integrity of scientific publications. _ COPE is not in the business of disciplining editors and authors, but perhaps it could devise a code of behaviour, which editors could sign up to, and be formally disciplined by COPE if they breach it. _ COPE feels that this case is worth publishing in a major journal and on web sites to encourage discussion.

Follow up: 

No further action taken.

Year: