An article was published in July. In October, a corrigendum was published to correct large sections of unattributed text. Two weeks later the journal and publisher received a complaint from a reader who accused the author of the published article of using text from an unpublished collaborative manuscript on which the published author was participating. This participation on the collaborative work was initiated and ongoing during the time that the manuscript was being prepared for publication at the journal. The unpublished collaborative work has not yet been published.
The reader requested retraction of the published article, with the possibility of a republication only when all collaborators of the unpublished work were in agreement with the article content.
The publisher and journal initiated the procedure outlined in the COPE flowchart 'Suspected plagiarism in a published manuscript'. The editor-in-chief has requested feedback from the published author on the reason for the large overlap in text.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the publisher and journal publish an 'expression of concern' while continuing with the investigation? • Is this the correct approach in this situation?
The editor told the Forum that she had checked the articles and the degree of overlap of text was nearly 20%. The Forum warned that percentages can be misleading, and the editor needs to look carefully at where the overlap occurred (in the introduction and methods may be fine, but it can be more problematic in the results or conclusion sections).
The institution(s) may need to be involved in this case.
The Forum would advise against an expression of concern on the article as these are generally used for ongoing unresolved cases. In this case, there is nothing proven or finalised —it may ‘end’ in a correction or a retraction. Hence it may be premature to publish an expression of concern and the editor should wait for a response from the authors. There is also the issue of the negative connotations of an expression of concern and/or stigma for the author, which may be unwarranted
A suggestion was for a less permanent ‘Editor’s note’ on the article for now, written in neutral terms.
The journal’s review of the guidelines on text recycling led to the conclusion that the scientific content was not disputed, and in fact the article adds to the body of knowledge. Also, the text recycling was not in the discussion or conclusions but rather in the methodology. The journal decided not to publish an expression of concern or retract the publication. The editor considers the case closed.
A letter to the editor from reader A was received by our journal concerning a published case history from author B. Reader A questioned the choice of treatment and author B's conclusion regarding the reason why the patient died. We believe this case raises at least two interesting questions.
Firstly, the patient, or in this case the patient's relatives, could possibly suffer an additional burden by having their understanding of the course of events challenged. Speculations about treatment and course of events from health personnel or others, who do not know the patient beyond the published history, may expose the patient/relatives to groundless concerns. Our journal requires consent for publication from the patient/relative(s) when publishing case histories, but the consent applies to the published article as such. Hence it does not include further discussion or comments from others in the journal or elsewhere after publication. One could argue that this is implicit when giving consent, but one cannot expect patients to know or reflect upon such matters. In other words, is the consent truly informed?
Secondly, the authors have access to a lot more medical information about the patient than they have chosen to publish. The consent only applies to the published material. In further discussions, they cannot answer properly without breeching confidentiality or collect further consent. Hereby the risk of a delayed debate, a debate that gets too general and in which the opponents (who are only able to speculate about the further details) get the last word.
The case was resolved by carefully moderating the letter to the editor in cooperation with reader A.
Planned further steps by the journal for future cases:
• Such debates must be modified with the patient's interest in mind. • Include a sentence in the consent form informing the patient about the possibilities of post publication debate. • Possibly include a disclaimer on such debates, informing about the limits of such debate? • Possibly include a reminder about the patient's perspective in the author guidelines for debate?
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is it justifiable, ethically, to let readers speculate on the patient's diagnosis, the choice of treatment, etc? • Have any of the Forum members had similar discussions in their respective journals? • Are the steps taken/planned reasonable? • Does the Forum have additional advice on how we can avoid such problems in the future?
The Forum suggested that the steps outlined by the journal as a way of proceeding are good and reasonable. If the post-publication comments are informed, then it may be fine to publish them but this must be done carefully. Peer review can be helpful here.
Letters to the editor commenting on case reports could include disclaimers, and it is important to remind people to think about the patient and their family.
While an ethical framework is needed, the journal also has a responsibility to encourage debate, but in a sensitive and cautious way. For example, this can be an opportunity to allow input from people with whom the patient might not ever have access. The framework within which this happens is important.
The most intriguing case reports often have an aura of ‘mystery’, treading a fine line between the ‘obvious’ versus the ‘suspense’ of whether the patient did get the right treatment but this should not compromise accurate reporting or condoning poor practice. Authors need to be upfront about the details of the case, including the diagnosis. Authors should not disclose additional information after publication. Post-publication speculation must be handled carefully as it can be distressing for the patient and the patient’s family.
In 2012, Dr X started her post-doctoral training under a fellowship. She worked on the project until 2014, when the fellowship ended. She did all the work herself, and gave two seminars showing her results and progress, with positive feedback. When needed, she consulted with the supervisor or with a senior scientist in the laboratory (who has since resigned). By the time she finished, she had written a manuscript solely on her work, and it had gone through several editing rounds of revisions with the senior scientist. There were five co-authors on the paper: Dr X, the supervisor, two senior scientists and a graduate student.
In 2015, the manuscript was sent to the supervisor, who said "I find the text very thoughtful and balanced, with good interpretations", and had a few remarks. Again, they went through two editing rounds. The supervisor received the final version in October 2015, with the understanding that he would submit it; Dr X never received any reply.
Dr X repeatedly emailed her supervisor every 2 months or so, but at some point, the supervisor stopped responding to emails, or replied very briefly, only saying that the senior scientist had resigned. Dr X has been hired in a permanent research position. To be tenured, Dr X needs to publish and show that her post-doctoral work was accepted for publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Can Dr X go ahead and publish this manuscript with the authors as originally written? If not, is there any recourse for her? • Can I, as an editor-in-chief, and knowing the background, receive, review and publish this manuscript?
The Forum questioned why is it up to the supervisor to submit the paper and not Dr X? Dr X should be entitled to go ahead and submit the work.
The Forum also questioned if the supervisor qualifies as an author? Should he be listed as a contributor instead?
The institution needs to take a role in resolving this issue. If permission from the university is needed, Dr X could consider going above the supervisor, to his supervisor—diplomatically escalating the issue, but in a non-aggressive way.
The Forum concluded that Dr X should submit the paper for publication. When Dr X submits the paper to a journal for publication, she should be transparent about the provenance of the paper, explaining the history. The supervisor’s contribution and conflicts of interest should be documented on the paper. If published, the editor could consider having a statement concerning these on the paper.
Follow-up (January 2017): The researcher tried to determine the correct person to contact above the supervisor and met with frustration. Although unresolved, the editor considers the case closed.
Our journal has been contacted by an author who would like to submit a review article. The author responded to a request for an invited review from a predatory journal without realizing it was a predatory journal. The author submitted the article only to receive an unexpected invoice and clear evidence of no peer review. The author investigated the journal and then realized the predatory nature of this journal.
To remove the submitted manuscript from this journal, the author communicated via email, phone and certified letter, and also contacted members of the editorial board, but has received no return communication. Periodically, the manuscript has disappeared from the journal’s website, only to reappear in a later issue. The author never signed a copyright agreement and never paid the journal to publish the article. The author would like to have the manuscript published in a legitimate journal but does not wish to be guilty of duplicate publication.
As the former editor-in-chief of the journal, the only advice I could offer was to contact the present editor-in-chief of the legitimate journal to which the author wishes to submit the manuscript, explain the situation and see what advice is given. If accepted and published, a statement could be included that this is the only valid version of the paper.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What advice can be given to the author about submitting the manuscript to a legitimate journal without the author being guilty of duplicate publication?
The Forum agreed with the advice of the former editor-in-chief. As there was no copyright transfer, the paper could be published in the legitimate journal, ideally with an editorial note on the paper explaining what has happened. Otherwise, the author may have to write off this paper to experience and lessons learned.
The Forum noted that this case highlights the importance of the Think.Check.Submit. initiative, which provides tools to help researchers identify trusted journals for their research.
Another suggestion was to threaten legal action—the predatory journal may back down if legal action is threatened.
The editor conveyed the Forum’s advice to the author. She sent another letter via certified mail to the predatory journal, but it was returned unopened (as no one was present at the address to accept the letter). She did not threaten legal action because her university’s legal counsel would not endorse that approach and she was unable to obtain a response from anyone at the journal via phone, email or certified letter in order to communicate that threat effectively. However, she then sent a message to the publisher of the predatory journal: “Immediately remove my article from your website. If you do not do so immediately, I will take legal action”. The publisher responded by asking her for the article title and associated journal. The author provided this information and indicated she would proceed with legal action if the article was not removed from the journal’s website by a given date. She will now proceed with submission to a legitimate journal, and the editor of the legitimate journal is comfortable that duplicate publication is no longer a problem.
We received a claim that several authors were removed from an article published in one of our journals before the article was submitted. None of those said to have been removed were acknowledged.
The claimant requested retraction. They said the article was previously submitted to other journals, listing them as an author. They provided what they said was an earlier version of the article submitted to another publisher, which listed those additional authors, including themselves. The articles were the same, with small differences in language. They provided what they said were rejection letters from other journals, including the additional authors.
The claimant was reluctant to be named and expressed concern about repercussions; we explained the claim could not otherwise be investigated by the institution. They agreed we could contact the authors and institution. We did, and the claimant stated the authors threatened them. The submitting author said the claimant should not have been an author and the claimant agreed to this, and provided signed statements from the other removed authors agreeing to being removed. We contacted these removed authors and they each confirmed they participated in the work, but did not want to be listed as authors.
The submitting author did not show us the agreement from the claimant to not be an author. The claimant informed us that one of these other people said they were presented with a pre-written statement to sign in English, which is not their native language.
We asked the institution to investigate. After several months, the institutional committee informed us of their decision: the claimant provided an email statement agreeing not to be listed as an author; our published author list was correct; the claimant would be penalised professionally for harming the institution’s reputation.
We asked to see a copy of the claimant’s email in which they agreed not to be an author, but this was not provided despite repeated requests. The institutional contact told us they had left their post and directed us to contact the article’s senior author. The claimant informed us this earlier statement applied to a different article. The claimant said we should have investigated this claim ourselves and by not doing so we exposed them to negative consequences; they suggested they might take legal action against us. We referred them to the COPE guidelines, 'Request for addition of extra author after publication'. They said they would consider legal action against the institution.
We let the institution know, through another contact, that an option for contributors who do not meet criteria for authorship is to be acknowledged and we confirmed the investigation is confidential so will not have affected their reputation; we did not receive a reply.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Could the claim involving authorship have been made anonymously? • Could we have investigated further before involving the authors and/or institution? • Should COPE rules be revised when dealing with uncooperative or potentially biased institutional review committees? • Is there anything further we can or should do now?
The Forum asked if there is a national body or research integrity office that the journal could contact and ask them to investigate?
The Forum agreed that it is almost impossible to deal with an authorship dispute without revealing the names of those involved, and that there was little else the journal could have done under these circumstances. The Forum did not believe the journal could have investigated any more.
The journal could use this as an opportunity to say to the institution that they expect all institutions to cooperate and to have good processes in place for such issues, and remind them that they are ultimately publicly responsible for decisions on authorship.
One suggestion was that the journal could consider issuing an expression of concern, which may allow the author to have some form of acknowledgement and it also may induce the institution to follow-up.
Another suggestion was for the editor to write an editorial on this issue.
Dealing with uncooperative or potentially biased institutional review committees is an issue COPE could explore further with institutions.
The journal attempted to contact oversight bodies, but have not received a response. The claimant says they have taken legal action against the authors. The journal separately received a legal claim regarding the contents of the article, but could not verify the contact details of that claimant and they did not respond to our queries.
We received a letter from a third party, accusing author A of putting his/her name against an article, published in our journal, when the research itself belongs to author A's student.
Our journal is a fully English language publication and the accusing third party and author A are from a non-English speaking country, as is the student (assumedly). The accusing third party forwarded the student's research paper to the editor which is entirely written in another language but contained an English abstract.
The Editor contacted author A and the response received included an attached confirmation letter supposedly from his/her student stating that they had no involvement in the published work by author A and that their research is completely separate to the published paper by author A.
We have several concerns: 1. It is difficult for the editor to examine the abstract the third party sent to us against the published article by author A. 2. We do not know if the response letter emailed from author A, confirming no involvement in author A's paper, is genuinely from the student. 3. The accuser's identity or relation to the matter is unknown to us. Ideally the editor needs to contact the student directly but we need bona fide contact details of the student and we are not sure we would get it from the accuser or the accused author A. Google is also of little help as there are so many people with the name.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • How should we go about contacting the student? • What should be our next steps?
COPE’s advice in these types of cases would be to contact the student directly. Contacting the institution in confidence through the Office of Graduate Studies would be the most normal route but some universities in some countries might not respect the confidentiality of the student. The Forum acknowledged how frustrating it must be for the journal, and that there is probably little else that can be done.
The journal could ask the third party for the contact details of the student. The only other suggestion was to see if there is a licensing board in the country that could be contacted. Any licensed professional is usually governed by a licensing board.
The editor contacted the accuser asking for the student’s details but no response has yet been received.
Follow-up (January 2017): The journal considers the case closed.
A group of unspecified members of an organisation have written an expression of concern (letter via email) to the editors wherein they request that an article previously published in the journal be retracted since they believe it is biased and inaccurate about regulation details within the organisation. They are further requesting that their letter be published in the journal.
The editors of the journal are unsure how best to proceed with this request. They believe the article should not be retracted (no unethical misconduct was committed by the author as far as they are aware, and the article did go through peer review with two reviewers having minor corrections and recommending the editors publish the article, which they accepted), as the reasons stated in the letter for requesting the retraction are not grounds for doing so. The reasons given are:
1) The absence of important information on the organisation's accreditation and professional regulations 2) The calling into question of the organisation's ethical standards and practices 3) The general misinformation about the organisation's business model 4) The overall poor research methodology and writing standards Note: not all members of the organisation were aware that the letter was sent (one of the editors is a member of this organisation), and the author of the article and certain members of this organisation have a history of disagreeing on previous articles that the author has published in other journals on the same topic (furthermore, the author once had a submission accepted at this organisation’s conference and after a disagreement they uninvited him).
The editors have shared the expression of concern letter with the author and the publisher. The author has responded to all the points in their letter with counter arguments. The editors have also crafted a response letter to this organisation (standing by their decision). The publisher does not believe the article should be retracted, but instead that the editors should respond to the complaint with an explanation about when retractions are appropriate and also the nature of how the paper was accepted/published.
However, the editors are considering whether they should publish the letter with the responses (if it would benefit the community, which is a very close knit group). The author has also requested that his response be published in the journal.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is it wise/is there justification to publish the letter? (it could be beneficial if it is conducted in a scholarly manner but also could be unproductive if major disagreements sit on both sides historically.) • If COPE recommends publishing on this topic, how does it suggest the editors do so (what format/are there procedures that should be followed)? • If COPE suggests responding to the organisation via email is best, are there any other steps the editors should take to resolve this disagreement? • Has a situation like this one occurred before/been handled successfully?
The Forum agreed that there does not seem to be a case for retraction, but the editor may wish to consult the COPE Guidelines for retracting articles (http://publicationethics.org/files/retraction%20guidelines_0.pdf). The advice was to have the conversation played out in the journal and allow the exchange to be published. It would be reasonable, if time consuming, to do the following: have the letter peer-reviewed by a qualified reviewer who can evaluate the accuracy of the claims in the article; have a peer-review of the response of the author; and if both get through the review process (with revisions if necessary) then publish them both.
This is an editorial judgement call. COPE would not have a “publication ethics” position here, besides that contained within its regular guidance for publishing (ie, to manage transparency, permissions, conflicts of interest, etc). Publishing letters or debate papers would make the process transparent. If the journal decides to publish the letters, the Forum recommended ensuring that the letter from the organisation is signed by an individual or individuals. The journal should not publish an anonymous letter.
The Forum noted that in cases such as these, it is very important to choose reviewers carefully. Selection of objective reviewers is especially important when organisations are involved.
Our journal accepted a randomised controlled trial for publication which has not yet been published online. In the submitted paper, the randomised controlled trial is described as commencing in 2004 with completion in 2011. We have received an email and telephone call from an individual not listed as an author or reviewer of the paper with the following alleged disputes: • He was an investigator on the trial between 2004 and 2008. • He analysed the data from this study in 2008 which were published as an MD thesis in 2010 with the institution at which the study was carried out with the trial protocol possibly changed after that time. The results were submitted to a journal but the submission was rejected and was not submitted elsewhere. • He is not listed as an author of the manuscript although his contribution to the study has been acknowledged in it. • The data collected up to 2008 were unblinded for the purpose of then data analysis before the full data up to 2011 were fully analysed. • There is a dispute as to whether some subjects at the time of the assessment of the primary outcome measure should be included in the data analysis.
Steps taken by the journal so far: 1) We have written to the corresponding author of the manuscript to inform him about the receipt of this complaint and the duty to investigate. 2) The publication process for this manuscript has now been suspended pending the outcome of this investigation. 3) We have requested from the complainant the following documents: original trial protocol in 2004 in order to compare it with the registered version; MD thesis published in 2010 in order to compare its results with that reported in the currently submitted manuscript; draft manuscript of the results of the study submitted to the other journal which was submitted in 2010 but rejected for publication for comparison of its results with that reported in the currently submitted manuscript. Next steps 4) We will seek confidential input of peer reviewers to provide their feedback on alleged discrepancies, when additional information is received. 5) If we find that the above discrepancies appear to be valid, we will contact the author of the current submission and ask for clarification of the connection between the two works and a response to any discrepancies found. 6) In light of the above, we will revisit the decision on manuscript acceptance. 7) If we conclude that any confirmed concerns are serious and unfixable through revision of the manuscript, we reserve the right to reject the manuscript. 8) The publisher and its publishing partner will be notified so that its legal department has prior notification of the case.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is the journal taking the right steps? • Is there any further action required? • If the current authors amend the manuscript and authorship appropriately in light of any discrepancies found, we intend to accept the paper. Is this ok? • In the above situation what is our obligation with respect to informing the authors’ institutions?
The Forum was updated that the journal has received the documents requested in step (3) above. The journal did not involve the peer reviewers—the editors reviewed the materials. On reviewing the documents, the editors found discrepancies and have contacted the authors for an explanation.
The Forum cautioned about the editors getting involved in what is essentially an authorship dispute. There may be a limit to what the journal can do. The recommendation was to refer to the institution, in a neutral way.
The Forum discussed the journal policy on trial registration. As the trial began in 2004, technically the authors are not required to prospectively register it. Some journals ask for the full trial protocol (not the one on clinical trials .gov), as it is usually more detailed. The journal may want to consider doing this to avoid a similar situation arising in the future.
One other suggestion was to ask for documentation from the ethics committee that approved the study. The ethics committee should also have evidence of any protocol changes. If there are any discrepancies, these can also be brought to the attention of the institution.
An author submitted a Forum manuscript critiquing an article published in the journal six years previously. The Forum manuscript was reviewed by three reviewers who all recommended rejection, and was evaluated by an associate editor and a senior editor, who rejected the manuscript on the grounds that the reviewers were unconvinced by the critique and felt that it did not really advance the subject.
The author appealed the decision and the decision was upheld, but the author was informed that a different critique of the published paper which sufficiently advances the debate and moves the topic forward in a constructive manner could be considered again. The author informed us that they intended to make the version of the manuscript as submitted publicly available online along with the reviews and a commentary on the issues raised, prior to submission to a journal with open peer review. The author requested the journal’s consent for the review comments to be made public under CC licence.
We declined permission to publish the reviews and explained that the journal operates a confidential single blind review process. Reviewers are informed that their names will not be revealed to the authors unless they choose to sign their review at the end of their comments and are told that the manuscript and all correspondence relating to it should be treated as confidential. We do not currently allow reviewers to publish their own review comments for accepted manuscripts.
The author has asked to see the guidance published by the journal which imposes specific confidentiality on authors regarding the confidential treatment of reviews. We currently offer no such guidance to authors but we do link to our publisher’s guidelines on publication ethics on the submission site for the journal which states: “If discussions between an author, editor, and peer reviewer have taken place in confidence they should remain in confidence unless explicit consent has been given by all parties, or unless there are exceptional circumstances”.
Given that the journal operates a confidential single blind review process, this guidance applies to the treatment of reviews. We believe that this position is consistent with COPE’s Ethical Guidelines for Reviewers, which provides that they should “respect the confidentiality of peer review and not reveal any details of a manuscript or its review.” We recognise that the author guidelines on our website could be more explicit and we intend to update our guidelines to provide greater clarity. The journal’s stance is that the reviews were solicited and submitted by the reviewers as part of a confidential review process and no notification was provided to the reviewers that their review comments could be published. None of the reviewers chose to sign their reviews for this manuscript.
In line with the COPE discussion document “Who owns peer reviews?” we therefore feel it is not appropriate to allow the review comments to be published in any form as reviewers were not informed about potential publication of review comments prior to agreeing to review the manuscript. The author disagrees with this stance and has requested that the issue be presented to COPE.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What further action, if any, should be taken by the journal?
An update to the Forum was that the author has submitted a complaint to COPE directly. He is ready to go live with a public website, with a copy of his paper along with the reviews.
The Forum agreed that the journal is acting within its current guidelines. However, they could indicate to the author they will consider this issue for future papers, but they cannot go back and retrospectively change what was in place when this paper was reviewed. Hence the Forum agreed that the journal has done all it can and no further action is needed here. A suggestion was to review the journal’s instructions to authors and instructions to reviewers to ensure the guidance regarding publishing reviews is very clear.
The Forum discussed the wider issue of who owns the peer reviews. Copyright is with the reviewer unless it is formally transferred to the author. However, if all parties consent (journal, author, reviewers) then the reviews can be made public. The Forum also discussed transferring reviewer reports to another journal when a manuscript has been rejected. Some journals advocate this but no names are attached to the review. The Forum warned against confusing open peer review and confidentiality.
After we contacted the author with an update on the outcome of the COPE Forum discussion, the author informed us that they decided to publish the reviews on their personal website. We notified the reviewers and editors involved with the case, and emailed the author to remind them that the publishing of reviews had been done without our consent but we do not intend to pursue the matter further. We now consider the case closed.
The first author of a paper rejected by our journal publicly identified one of the four peer reviewers for the paper by name. She did this during a media interview conducted after the paper was published by another journal. The first author implied in that interview and subsequently on Twitter that the paper was rejected because of that person's review and also claimed the reviewer did not reveal relevant COIs.
This complaint received a great deal of attention because the rejected paper had a direct bearing on a very bitter medical/political matter, and its results were felt to bolster the case for one faction. The authors had not lodged a formal complaint with our journal about this matter. We usually do not comment on papers that we do not publish, so when contacted by the press about this accusation our initial response was to "neither confirm nor deny" that we had considered the paper. It soon became clear, however, that the reviewer was the subject of much unpleasant comment on social media and other vindictive behaviour. A colleague of the reviewer, for example, tweeted that he was "ashamed" to be a professor in the same institution as the reviewer. The reviewer also received two freedom of information requests asking for any correspondence with the journal and anybody else concerning the rejected paper.
What the journal did:
1. We immediately contacted the authors to let them know we were disappointed in their behaviour. The authors acknowledged their mistake and had already contacted the reviewer to apologise. The reviewer accepted the apology but expressed the hope that we would make his review public, saying "I am continuing to get emails from people who are assuming that I wrote negative reviews for the paper and raising questions about conflict of interest. I believe my reviews to have been supportive of publication and not to comment on whether the journal should accept or not. So from my point of view it would be helpful if you could publish my reviews regardless of whether the other reviewers agree to this..."
2. The other reviewers and the authors agreed that we could make this matter public, so we broke with precedent and published a blog. We received mostly positive comments on Twitter and in the comments section for the blog.
3. We have also amended our instructions for authors on the journal website to say "For rejected research papers, we expect that authors will keep the identity and comments of peer reviewers confidential. They may, however, share the peer review comments (although not peer reviewer names) in confidence with other journals. Authors should contact the editor who handled their paper if they have any complaints about the peer review process or the behaviour of the peer reviewers."
4. We have also amended our rejection letters to say "Although the journal has an open peer review process, in which authors know who the peer reviewers were, we expect that you will keep the identity and comments of the peer reviewers for this paper confidential. You may, however, share the peer review comments in confidence (although not the names of the peer reviewers) with other journals to which you submit the paper. If you have any complaints about the peer review process or the conduct of the peer reviewers, please contact the editor who handled your paper. Please do not contact the peer reviewers directly."
5. We continue to follow-up periodically with the reviewer to make sure he is not suffering any additional ill effects from this incident.
6. We are submitting this case to COPE and will also be referring it to the journal's internal ethics committee. The matter now seems to have died down, but it raises many questions.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the journal have handled this differently?
• Should the journal formally notify the first author's institution about her behaviour?
• Are the additional instructions to authors on our website and in rejection letters adequate? Should we do anything else to prevent this from happening again?
• Should peer reviewers who do research in the same field as authors of a paper declare this as a COI? If so, when? Almost all reviewers are chosen because they have expertise in the same field, and commonly their conclusions have differed in some respects from those of the authors. At present very few reviewers list this among their COIs.
The Forum agreed that the journal did a good job here, and has taken reasonable steps to change their process and avoid a similar situation in future
The Forum discussed whether the author was under pressure by a media interview and gave a comment afterwards for which they later apologised, or was it deliberate on the part of the author as the paper was published in another journal and this was an “attack” on the reviewer for the journal that rejected the paper. The Forum was ambivalent on whether the first author's institution should be contacted. It is possible that the institution is already aware of the case (because of the media coverage) but the institution could be contacted in neutral terms although it is unlikely that the journal could expect much action from them.
Regarding conflicts of interest, being in the same field is not in itself a conflict of interest—in fact it is usually a reason to pick a reviewer. Because experts in the same field have interests that are similar, they may unfairly be perceived to have a conflict of interest. However, sometimes reviewers do have conflicts of interest so it may be helpful to include instructions with some clarifying exemplars to help reviewers to identify conflicts of interest. For example, if a researcher has built a career on a particular view and are ‘famous’ for holding that view, that could be a conflict of interest. The advice was to ensure that the journal’s guidelines to reviewers regarding conflicts of interest are up to date. The COPE discussion document may be helpful in this regard (http://publicationethics.org/files/u7140/Discussion_document__on_handling_competing_interests.pdf)