The editors and publisher of a US climate journal asked COPE about publishing content anonymously following the recent “gag orders” placed on the US Environmental Protection Agency. The editors wanted to promote actively a new policy, while the publisher was encouraging evaluation of each situation if/when anonymity was requested. How should the journal proceed?
COPE council provided the following advice.
This is a difficult issue as transparency is important in publishing but the approach probably has to be done on a case-by-case basis. COPE would support this idea in principle. A key issue is that the editors must know who is publishing. While transparency is a key value, an even greater one is minimizing harm. On that basis, the work around we have used in the past is that the editor, or publisher, should be aware of the authors' identities to ensure a proper process.
This is really an editorial issue that the journal editors have to make and declare. It may not be for the publisher to decide. The publisher should respect the editorial freedom of the editorial boards and the editor-in-chief. A suggestion would be for the editors to convene their editorial board and get everyone on board if they are to actively promote the anonymous communication of results that go against the gag order. The editors should have a very clear, and defendable, reason to grant anonymity to the author. Some explanatory text from the editor/publisher should be included to frame the situation and the editor/publisher should be willing to act as an intermediary if pertinent queries come from the readership.
If we believe that in countries with no freedoms we should protect authors who want to publish when going contrary to the prevailing order, in effect, protect them from being persecuted for their ideas/research, then we should apply this same principle to other countries that have democratic regimes, such as the US, the principle being freedom of speech and academic/professorial freedom.
A suggestion for anyone wishing to publish something that their government disapproves of is to choose a journal that is published in a different country. Assuming the usual quality controls are in place (nothing libelous, etc), it is very hard to enforce restrictions across jurisdictions.
The following COPE cases have dealt with similar issues:
Inability to contact an author to obtain permission to publish
Anonymity versus author transparency