Peer reviewers are asked to contribute intellectual work to assess and improve scholarly publications. As with all work, the quality and characteristics of peer reviews vary. Editors responsibilities include support not only to the peer reviewers who typically volunteer the time and knowledge but also to the authors, who reasonably should expect non-conflicted, thoughtful, unbiased, thorough reviews of the work in question and to not be subjected to hostile or personal attacks.
In 2020 COPE shared a survey with members and non-members asking for views from editors and publishers on an editor's ability to alter the contents of a submitted peer review. The questions we asked include:
- Is it acceptable to make changes to the contents of a peer review before sending it to authors?
- Is it acceptable for an editor to withhold a review from an author?
- Have you ever suppressed an entire review?
- Have you ever edited reviewer comments, and what were your reasons for doing so?
- If you do withhold or censor reviewer’s comments, do you make a note in the editorial system?
145 individuals completed some or all of the survey. 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 were because the reviewers were non-compliant with the journal’s instructions for reviews.
Some comments supported the role of the editor-in-chief as responsible for the peer review process and that editors should have the freedom to set the tone of the content of the peer reviews. Although a minority believed it was never appropriate to edit or suppress reviews, they raised concerns that allowing this would invest too much power in the editor; some described this as a ‘slippery slope’.
Of 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. The question was not specifically asked, but several respondents commented about communicating with the reviewer if the editor edited their comments.
COPE will consider the results and the issues raised in this survey, and determine how best to provide guidance to our members on this issue.