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Case discussion: Possible breach of reviewer confidentiality

Possible breach of reviewer confidentiality

The editor of a journal that had recently rejected a manuscript was informed by the author that an attendee at a national conference had asked some questions about that paper. The author suspected that the attendee had been given a copy of the manuscript by a peer reviewer, because the journal used open-identity (non-anonymous) reviewing and the person was not one of the named reviewers.

When the editor asked the two relevant reviewers if they had forwarded the manuscript to anyone, both replied that they had not and had maintained confidentiality. The editor relayed this to the author, noting that the paper had previously been rejected by two other journals and was currently being reviewed by a fourth journal. Accordingly, the author was advised to also consider contacting the editors of those three journals.

Question(s) for the COPE Forum

• Do you think that the journal handled this correctly?

Forum advice

The Forum raised the point that reviewers sometimes show papers they are reviewing to their colleagues or students, and this is a breach of confidentiality. There may have been such a breach at any of the other three journals or even during review at grant application stage. The Forum agreed that the editor had handled the complaint appropriately. The editor added that the journal’s instructions were clear about respecting confidentiality and informing the journal if other people were involved in reviewing.                      

Case discussion

This COPE Forum case is categorised under two COPE Core Practices:

  • Complaints and appeals: “Journals should have a clearly described process for handling complaints against the journal, its staff, editorial board or publisher.”
  • Peer review processes: “All peer review processes must be transparently described and well managed. Journals should provide training for editors and reviewers and have policies on diverse aspects of peer review, especially with respect to adoption of appropriate models of review and processes for handling conflicts of interest, appeals and disputes that may arise in peer review.”

The objectivity, fairness, honesty, and diligence of peer reviewers are central to the quality and integrity of the journal peer review process and hence of the scholarly research record. In addition to assembling and maintaining a pool of trustworthy and competent reviewers, journals need to ensure that information for reviewers and authors about peer review processes are transparent, understandable, and accessible. In particular, the type/s of peer review model offered and instructions about expected responsibilities, behaviour, performance, and ethical standards of peer reviewers should be clearly stated in the journal’s website and invitation to review.

Relevant COPE guidance that can be referenced or incorporated into journal policies includes the COPE Ethical guidelines for reviewers and the COPE Discussion document: Who “owns” peer reviews?

Apart from peer review systems that use open-identity review and publish signed reviews on public platforms (eg, those based on the F1000Research post-publication review model), peer review is usually a closed and confidential process. Confidentiality needs to be understood and maintained by both authors and reviewers. The manuscript under review, journal correspondence, and peer review reports should be kept confidential during the review process. Authors and reviewers should not contact each other during the review process (unless the journal adopts a non-anonymous collaborative step). These conditions of trust are the expected norms regardless of if the peer review model is open-identity, single-blind, or double-blind, or if reviewers agree to being named in their review reports. After review, journal correspondence and peer review reports also remain confidential unless published alongside an article; if the published report is unsigned, the reviewer retains the right to anonymity.

Manuscripts under closed review represent intellectual property and privileged information, and are high-stakes documents that demand strict confidentiality among all parties. Reviewers are routinely instructed not to use any of the content under review, not to share it, and to delete files after review. An extreme example of a breach of trust is when a reviewer commits plagiarism and theft of intellectual property by submitting a manuscript containing material taken from a paper under review. Retraction Watch even reported on a reviewer publishing nearly verbatim a paper under review, after adding a new list of authors. Other breaches of trust to gain an unfair advantage from the review process include delaying the peer review process; hindering review with unreasonable requests for revision, reanalysis, or additional tests; or giving a false-negative review, so as to publish a competing paper first.

The editor in the described case responded well by investigating the author’s complaint and offering useful advice. The author would need to follow up at the other journals, which would in turn have a duty to promptly investigate the complaint. If the author had exchanged names and contact details with the conference delegate (or noted the badge name and retained a conference pack that included an attendance list), then the other journals would have more information for their investigation. The first editor that the author had approached in this case could also confirm that the two reviewers did not unknowingly grant that named delegate access to the manuscript via a mislaid printout or via files in a shared computer or a shared or lost memory stick or other device.

The editor of the fourth journal, which was currently reviewing the manuscript, could help expedite and coordinate the investigation by contacting the other editors following COPE’s “Sharing of information among editors-in-chief regarding possible misconduct”. If needed, the editor could also contact the delegate or the delegate’s institution.

It is possible that the delegate was one of the actual reviewers at the other three journals, or a colleague or student of a reviewer. As noted by the Forum, unfortunately reviewers do pass on their papers to others for their opinion or review without first seeking journal permission. This might be because of a reviewer’s late realisation of a lack of time or expertise after receiving the full paper (often, a potential reviewer is sent only the abstract to make the decision to review or not). However, reviewers should be repeatedly reminded to inform the journal immediately if they do not have the time or expertise to review, or are prevented from completing a review owing to a conflict of interest.

Asking someone else to review a paper breaks confidence and, without disclosing any assistance received, is also viewed as plagiarism. The same applies when reviewers forward papers to their postgraduate students or junior colleagues to partly or fully ghost-write reviews, in an attempt at ad hoc peer review training. The correct procedure is to ask the journal first, so that a replacement reviewer or co-reviewer can be formally invited, have their details logged, go through any on-boarding processes, and be appropriately credited. Such a policy needs to be emphasised in journal instructions and reviewer invitation letters. Journals and publishers could also consider launching formal processes for allowing and managing co-reviewing requests (eg, as recently initiated by the Institute of Physics Publishing group).

It is indeed both urgent and important that journals and institutions develop or outsource formal reviewer training and mentorship programmes. Doing so will not only improve understanding of the peer review process and ethics, but also help improve the quality and diversity of future reviewers and ensure the continuity of the peer reviewer pool. Online training resources include the Clarivate Analytics Publons Academy, the ACS Reviewer Lab, and others mentioned in a European Association of Science Editors (EASE) webpage list of courses.

In addition, educational resources for reviewers, editors, and authors that are listed on the COPE Core Practice page on Peer Review Processes include relevant COPE Forum cases, as well as:

Peer review flowcharts, such as:

Seminars/webinars such as:

Finally, journals need to have clear policies, guidelines, and processes for when situations might compromise confidentiality or the integrity of the review model used. An example is if a journal using double-blind review allows authors to upload a manuscript draft as a preprint on a public online platform or repository before journal submission. Other examples are if an author requests permission to pass a peer review report to another journal or if a journal offers a transferable (or cascading) peer review system. All journals should be clear about their modes of operation. To help promote transparency, a crowdsourced initiative that is cataloguing key areas of journal policies (peer review, review transfer, co-reviewing, preprinting) is the Transpose database. Another initiative is the STM’s standardisation of terminology and definitions used to describe peer review practices.

Trevor Lane on behalf of the COPE Education Subcommittee