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Letter from COPE: June 2020

At this time we pay our respects to the memory of George Floyd, whose brutal killing has amplified issues of systemic racism in our society. We wish to voice our horror and outrage at the egregious violence, injustice, and marginalisation faced by people of colour in the US and throughout the world. We support all who stand against prejudice and discrimination of any kind.

We wanted to take this moment to recognise that scholarly publishing is not sufficiently diverse and representative, and to reiterate COPE's commitment to improving equity and inclusivity in our areas of influence, including within our own organisation. The strategic plan we published in February specifically identifies diversity and inclusion in our membership as an area of focus, and we want to play an active role in increasing diversity in scholarship, peer review, and publishing. There is much, much more to do.

While many editors, reviewers, and authors continue to live and work in a changed environment because of coronavirus, there has been an increased need for advice and support during this time. We bring together support and guidance that has been brought to our attention during the crisis.

It’s worth repeating COPE Chair Deborah Poff's statement in our April issue of Digest: 'Editors should stay true to their editorial policies, maintain high standards while being aware of their public health responsibilities. Peer review quality and transparency remain as important as ever. If a journal editor decides that usual procedures need to be amended temporarily, this should be declared in any affected manuscripts as an editorial note.'

This year we have been looking at why an editor might edit peer reviews and when or if it is acceptable to do so. We hosted a Forum discussion with COPE members, and shared an online questionnaire with both members and non-members. 

Interesting and informative opinions emerged from both the Forum and the online survey ‘Editing of reviewer comments’. From the survey, completed by 145 individuals, about 15% said they believed it is never acceptable for an editor to edit a peer reviewer’s comments and about 25% said they believed it is never acceptable to suppress a complete review. The most common reasons cited for editing reviews were related to unacceptable reviewer comments because they were inflammatory, hostile, or otherwise offensive, or factually incorrect. Other important reasons why editors said they edited reviews was because the reviewers were non-compliant with the journal’s instructions for reviews. Among those who said that they edited reviewer comments, about 61% (67/109) said they either always or sometimes make a note of it in the manuscript manager system. Read the full report here. Comments from the COPE Forum discussion echoed the results of the survey, with similar distinctions drawn between ethical screening and unethical censorship. Other comments were that working with reviewers is important, and editors should try to encourage reviewers to revise their comments; reviewers often do not receive any training.

There is a clear need to address the issues of transparency, and best practice for censoring or redacting comments. COPE is considering the results of the discussion and survey and will determine how best to provide guidance to our members on this issue.

Our most recent COPE Forum discussion was also around peer review, “What peer review means in the arts, humanities, and social sciences?” Addressing language and writing quality barriers while remaining inclusive was one of the main themes discussed. Another issue raised was should people who are not members of a group being studied, be allowed to study the group? And where there is research involving indigenous populations or communities, editors should check to see that indigenous institutional review boards (IRBs) or community IRBs have been involved in approving the research. Read all of the comments from the Forum.

As always, we welcome feedback on our discussions, and you can still add to the debate around these peer review issues by leaving comments on our website.

Stay healthy and stay safe.

  Nancy Chescheir & Caroline Porter, COPE Trustees



Read COPE's June Digest for the latest cases discussed at the June COPE Forum and a summary of the Forum discussion on 'What does peer review mean in arts, humanities, and social sciences''. We also discuss the case 'low risk study with no ethics committee approval' where we share the advice given by #C0PEMembers and add to the discussion with further analysis and links to guidance relevant issues around retrospective ethics review. Plus the monthly publication ethics news roundup and online events coming soon.