COPE's guidance on what to do if a reader suspects that there is an undisclosed conflict of interest in a published article. (Version 2, 2013)
To avoid future problems: always get signed statements of conflicts of interest from all authors and reviewers before publication. Ensure that journal guidelines include a clear definition of what a conflict of interest is.
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Full page history
Competing interests (also known as conflicts of interests — COIs) are ubiquitous. One definition is as follows:
“A conflict of interest (COI) is a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial interest, or otherwise, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation of the individual or organization. The presence of a conflict of interest is independent of the occurrence of impropriety.”
A subject editor, who oversaw a manuscript, was invited by the authors to become a co-author after the first review round. After inviting the subject editor to become an author (and adding his name to the author list), the revised version of the paper was submitted to the journal. The authors expected that a different subject editor would handle the paper in the next review round.
However, when the revised version was submitted, no one (including the subject editor himself) noticed the addition of the subject editor’s name to the revised paper, and the subject editor took "automatic" care of the revised manuscript when it was assigned to him by the editor-in-chief, who also had not noticed the addition of the subject editor’s name to the paper.
The second revision was directly accepted by the editor-in-chief. During proof corrections, no one noticed that the subject editor was listed as an author and also as the communicating editor (it is standard practice on the journal to name the subject editor on the published paper—ie, "Communicated by ...").
Thus the article was published online before the authors became aware of the problem and contacted the editor. The editor-in-chief believes the subject editor was acting in good faith, but is very concerned about the situation and the breakdown of the journal process. The manuscript managed to slip through two rounds of the journal’s editorial process.
The authors are also very concerned about this awkward situation, which looks like preferential treatment, and have asked the journal what can be done to avoid this impression.
Question What can the journal do?
The Forum agreed this was a failure of journal processes and the editor in chief must take responsibility for this. The change was not detected but there should be processes in place when any change in the authorship of a paper is noted. Authors should be required to clearly state when any changes in authorship are made after the initial submission, and the journal needs to ensure it tightens its processes to detect this. So the journal should reinforce the processes it has in place and make any necessary changes.
The editor confirmed that a conflict of interest statement was signed by the corresponding author on behalf of all of the authors. The Forum suggested that, in future, the journal may like to consider asking each author to sign an individual conflict of interest form. If this had been done in this case, for example, the addition of another author would have been spotted.
The advice from the Forum was to publish an erratum, with the editor in chief as the “Communicated by” editor, and also explaining clearly what happened in this case. The journal may also have to publish a correction to its conflict of interest statement on the paper.
The Forum also advised that the journal should have a written process in place for what to do when an editor becomes an author and wants to publish in his journal.
The journal added a note to the paper from the editor in chief, stating that due to an unfortunate technical mistake when handling the article, one of the authors was also a subject editor at the same time. The editor in chief also stated that he guaranteed that the scientific standards and honesty had not been violated in any way.
The authors of a manuscript sent an official complaint to our journal regarding a breach of confidentiality by an associate editor (AE). The authors had been informed by the supervisor of a reviewer of a manuscript. After submission of the review, the reviewer received a confidential email from AE asking whether the favourable recommendation made by the reviewer would have been different if the reviewer had been aware that the group submitting the manuscript had been recently queried by two journals on ethical issues. The reviewer (junior member of a research group) did not respond to the email of AE but informed her supervisor. The supervisor informed the authors and the authors filed a formal complaint.
The journal acknowledged receipt of the complaint and requested details and evidence of the accusations against AE. The editor received an email from the supervisor of the reviewer confirming the facts, as well as an edited copy of the email send by AE to the reviewer.
We informed AE of the complaint and our investigation of the allegation concerning a follow-up email send by AE to one of the reviewers of the manuscript informing them of the past history of the author group.
We asked AE for comments and an explanation, and told him that manuscripts will not be assigned until a resolution has been reached.
The reply from AE contained apologies for the "wrong behaviour" and a plea to be able to continue his work as AE. At no point was the resignation of AE offered to the journal. The editor and editorial team (deputy editors and managing editor) have considered all aspects and have come to the conclusion that collaboration with AE should be stopped.
Has the COPE Forum any additional comments? Have similar cases been submitted?
The Forum were told that the journal provides formal training for associate editors so there was no question that the associate editor was aware that their behaviour was wrong. The editor believes that professional competition was the motive of the associate editor. All agreed that the associate editor should have declared a conflict of interest and excused him/herself from the review process. The Forum advised that it is up to the editor to make the decision, and that he needs to consider how valuable he believes the associate editor is, and how likely they are to repeat this behaviour? Can the editor trust the associate editor now? The Forum suggested that the editor might re-emphasise the journal’s policy on conflicts of interest to the other associate editors.
The editorial team was unanimous in their decisions to stop collaboration with the associate editor and, regretfully, the collaboration stopped. The confidentiality issue was discussed with incoming associate editors during an annual associate editor course but this experience convinced the editors to emphasise the issue even more.
Two scholars and professional colleagues, A and B, serve as co-editors of a peer-reviewed international journal. Editor A, who recently had a book published, has requested that editor B solicit a review of the book from a scholar in the field. Editor A would like this review to be published in the journal that they edit together. Editor B is concerned that this situation would put him in a situation of conflict of interest, compromising his ability to serve impartially as editor and, moreover, that the reputation of the journal would be compromised. Editor B has a strong interest in maintaining cordial and collegial relations with editor A.
The Forum agreed that this was a dilemma—if the book review is not published in the editor’s journal then you may be denying readers knowledge of a potentially useful book but if it is published, is editor A abusing their position as editor? How will the journal be perceived if the book review is published? Would readers question why this book was selected for review? And would the reviewer of the book feel under pressure to give a good review? Most of the Forum agreed that it would be best not to publish a review of the co-editor’s book. If there are other journals in the field, it would be best to publish it in one of these. However, if the editor does decide to publish the book review, the process must be transparent. The Forum suggested publishing an explicit statement about who wrote it and explaining the review process. The Forum also suggested talking to editor A and explaining that the journal needs a policy about editors publishing in their own journal and, if allowed, the journal needs to develop stringent guidelines on this process, which should be completely transparent.
The editor decided not to solicit a review of the book authored by the co-editor because of the conflict of interest for the editor as well as potential book reviewers. Moreover, there are at least two other scholarly journals in the field that could review this book.
On the other hand, an edited anthology in which an article written by the co-editor appears seems to be a likely candidate for review since a prospective book reviewer could choose to mention that particular article or not.
The co-editor and the editor agreed that an important step in considering the matter was to ask COPE for their perspective(s). The editor is grateful to the Forum for their discrete and conscientious handling of the matter.
Our journal is attempting to encourage the adoption of a uniform standard for the reporting of population genetics data. As part of this, one of the editors of our journal has submitted a proposal requiring authors to submit their data, including raw data, to his own database. While the intention is laudable, there would appear to be a clear conflict of interest.
What can a journal do ethically to require authors to present their data in particular formats and to make their raw data publicly available?
In this situation is there a conflict of interest in the proposition that should preclude the journal adopting this policy?
What suggestions should be made to the editor concerned to resolve the conflict of interest while supporting the aims of standardised data collection and and centralised data storage and analysis.
The Forum was cautious about requiring authors to submit their data to a particular database. Some thought it was a step too far. The majority view was that instead of “requiring” authors to submit their data, it could be helpful to “encourage” them to do so and to provide information about the working of the database, but also to publish a clear conflict of interest statement about the ownership of the database when the policy is announced. The journal can only encourage authors—submission of their data should be optional and it is possible that other databases will be developed in time.
The Forum agreed that consulting with the wider community is a good idea. The editor could discuss this with the editorial board and also with other journals in the same field.
The editor noted that the comments from the Forum were very useful in guiding him to a decision on this case. The resolution was that the review article should be revised to remove any reference to future policy of the journal, and that instead an editorial piece would be written to go alongside the review, putting the case for submission of all population data to a database, such as the one described in the accompanying article. In addition, a letter would be sent to the editors of other journals in the area suggesting that they consider the benefits of such centralised data collection and suggesting that they adopt a common policy of recommending such submission.
These suggestions were passed to the associate editor/author of the review and the journal is awaiting resubmission of the amended review.
Please note, this case is being submitted by the Publishing Director of the journal based on the advice of a senior COPE member because it relates to the conduct of the editor in chief of the journal. The editor in chief of the journal is aware that the case is being submitted.
A letter of complaint was submitted in November 2009 relating to an editorial published in one of our journals, authored solely by the editor in chief. The person who wrote the letter of complaint has insisted that his anonymity be protected from the editor in chief. This is because he had previously been, in his view, the victim of a harassment suit (which subsequently failed) by the organisation mentioned in the editorial for interfering in their businesses.
This letter made two allegations: (i) that the content of the editorial contained numerous inaccuracies and unsubstantiated accusations and (ii) that the editorial had an undeclared conflict of interest as an individual (Dr X) involved with the organisation that the editorial mentioned had influenced the writing and appearance of the content without Dr X’s name being disclosed
The editor in chief was advised that this communication had been received and was informed about both allegations (on an anonymised basis). The Editor responded to state that Dr X was well known to him and that he had been asked to help with the editorial because of his superior use of English. Dr X had originally been asked to be a co-author of the editorial but had refused. The editor stated that it was true that Dr X had had some influence on this editorial but the content of this editorial was fully his intellectual product for which he bore all responsibility.
The editor categorically denied that there was an undisclosed conflict of interest and concluded by requesting that the person making the allegations should bring the matter into the open and send in a letter to the Editor. In our response, we advised that since Dr X had helped with the refinement of the text, their name should have been declared at the end of the editorial, particularly as Dr X was involved with the organisation that the editorial mentioned. We asked the editor to provide further clarification about Dr X’s involvement with the editorial. The editor replied to say that Dr X was a reviewer of his paper and that he, the editor, would not agree to general or even specific disclosure of Dr X’s participation with the preparation of the editorial to the readers of the journal. He reiterated that he would be prepared to enter into an open debate if the person making the allegations would submit a letter to the editor.
We responded to the editor to say we believed that the editor was confusing his role as author and editor. That as an editor, since he authored an article in which he viewed Dr X as taking the role of expert reviewer, then the paper should not have been handled by him as editor but should have been passed to another editor to make the decision about whether the editorial was suitable for publication. As the author of the article, he was required to disclose the involvement of Dr X who helped him to write it.
The editor responded and stated that he agreed there was some confusion between the roles of editor and author but that he did not see how the roles could be separated and reiterated that he would only respond to the allegations if a letter to the editor was openly submitted to him.
Despite further communication with the editor, no further progress has been made and the matter has been left with us advising the editor that it is not acceptable to us as owner and publisher of the journal to have published an editorial authored by the editor in chief who has subsequently admitted to us in writing that there was a further individual involved in the writing and preparation of the editorial whose name has not been disclosed to the readers of the journal. We advised the editor that if he remained unwilling to comply with our request that we would have to consider what further action to take which may involve taking this matter to COPE.
With regard to the second allegation, we advised the editor that we would be obtaining independent evaluation of the content of the article. The editorial was sent out to three independent experts. The outcome of these was that one reviewer supported publication of the editorial whereas the other two opposed publication. Given this mixture of reviews, we have not taken this matter any further and are still hopeful that the person making the initial anonymous complaint may still decide to write a letter to the editor to bring his concerns into the open.
We would appreciate the advice of COPE as to what next steps we should now take.
The Forum agreed that this was an interesting case but felt that it needed more information. Some members questioned the nature of the complaint. Is it not acceptable for editors to write editorials and express their own views? That might be viewed as part of the editor’s job. However, the publisher confirmed that she was unable to disclose any more details without breaking confidentiality but that the content of the editorial was also an issue.
In light of the fact that the publisher could not provide any further details, the Forum focused on the conflict of interest issue. It seems that the editor has admitted having a conflict of interest but refuses to publish this fact. All agreed that the editor should disclose his conflict of interest in the journal, whether or not a letter to the editor is openly submitted to him. The advice from the Forum was to encourage the complainant to write a letter to the editor, to which the editor could respond and declare his conflict of interest and hence the debate would be in the public domain. Although the publisher mentioned that she had tried this route unsuccessfully, she was encouraged to pursue this again. If this fails, other advice was to convene a semi-formal investigation and appoint an independent advisor or adjudicator. Ultimately, however, the editor is answerable to the publisher and the publisher must decide whether disciplinary action is required.
As editor of journal A I am handling a manuscript by an author and it is likely to be accepted, although this is not yet decided. As a reviewer for journal B, I have since been asked to review a manuscript by the same author that uses similar material and comes to a similar conclusion, but pushes the presentation of the results a little further. My gut feeling is that there is insufficient novelty for journal B. However, my problem is how do I tell journal B without compromising my role as editor of journal A?
Following advice from a COPE council member, I decided to review the manuscript for the second journal and in my comments to the authors I suggested that in order to sharpen their conclusions this study might be better embedded in a larger study. In my covering note to the editor, I wrote “Unfortunately, there may be an ethical issue to do with this manuscript. I have consulted COPE, without of course mentioning the journal, the authors or the subject of the research, but they cannot bring it to their Forum until March, which is long after the review deadline”.
The “larger study” that I mentioned is the work that is under review in the first journal. The covering note to the editor does not breach confidentiality with respect to the first journal but it does alert the editor of the second journal that there “may” be a problem and that he or she can decide to wait for a decision by the Forum.
I have since found out that Journal 2 has now rejected the manuscript, with another reviewer’s report identifying the same general scientific problems as I did in my comments to the authors. So, my cautionary covering note to the editor about a potential conflict of interest seems not to have been needed.
Does the Forum think that I handled the situation correctly or is there anything else I could have done?
The Forum agreed that the editor acted correctly by raising his conflict of interest although some suggested it might have been easier to tell the other editor that he could not review the paper as he was reviewing a similar paper submitted to his own journal by the same author. The Forum noted that it is fine for an editor to raise a problem with another editor. The Forum did raise the ethical issue of the author failing to declare a similar paper submitted to another journal. Most journals would require a copy of the other article. Had the author signed a form to say that the work was not under consideration at any other journal? It may be the case that the editor should review his guidelines to authors to ensure that such guidance is clear.