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Case discussion: Editing peer review comments

Peer reviewers provide their own intellectual property to the important work of reporting research. Sometimes, though, their comments may not align with a journal’s style or requirements, or can stray into the realm of what some call “hostile reviews”. Also, sometimes reviewers miss the mark and either do not understand the paper or parts of it, or include content that is factually incorrect. What is an editor to do in their effort to balance the interests of the authors, reviewers, journals and readers? Can the editor edit the reviews? What if the editor disagrees with the entire review? Should they ever not send a review to the authors?  

COPE is developing a survey to find out what members think about these and related questions. The topic will also be discussed at the next COPE Forum on 6 March. With this in mind, we highlight two cases from the COPE archive: 

Case 97-08 likely predated the online editorial management systems that allow confidential comments for the editor to be separated from their comments for the author. The submitter of the case was looking for answers about best practice when a reviewer is unhappy that comments meant for the editor “in confidence—not for transmission to the author” were transmitted to the author, although with derogatory comments edited out. While in general, it’s ideal that even confidential comments to the editor should be professional in tone, the resolution of this case was that journals should be very transparent about what comments could be shared (and although not stated, stick to those policies). There was no COPE comment regarding editing of the reviewer comments. 

In 2011 case 11-22, the corresponding author requested that her or his co-authors be restricted from seeing the reviewer comments directly due to potential embarrassment if the reviews were harsh. The COPE Forum unanimously felt that there should be no restriction of reviewer comments to authors, but also agreed that “publishers may edit reviewers’ comments before sending them to authors if they contain rude or libellous remarks”. The publisher, based on this case, should keep the original version on file. Presumably, these comments would today be kept within the editorial management system. 

What are your thoughts and your experience of editing peer reviewer comments? After the COPE Forum discussion on 'Editing of reviewer comments' on 6 March 2020, the survey will be circulated. Please take the time to complete it. We hope the discussion and survey will inform COPE guidance on this issue.

Nancy Chescheir. COPE Council

In COPE's February Digest we release the COPE Strategy 2020-2023 and our four strategic priorities introduced by COPE Vice-Chair Daniel Kulp in his February letter. Upcoming events in 2020 include a March COPE workshop in Melbourne, held in conjunction with ISTME, and our March Forum with advice on new cases submitted by members and the topic discussion, editing of reviewer comments. Plus the roundup of news as gathered by COPE Council members.

Read February Digest: Editing reviewer comments | COPE strategy