During refereeing of an article, one of the referees made an accusation of theft regarding a model described in the article. The referee and the authors had been collaborating on a review article previously, but had fallen out. The journal requested evidence from the parties. This involved several rounds of requests to the accuser, as the journal felt that the accuser was not providing anything amounting to actual evidence of the alleged theft. Owing to the technical nature of some of the evidence, the journal informed the parties that the material would be sent to an anonymous expert for adjudication. The adjudicator concluded that no evidence had been provided that supported the accusation. The journal will therefore be continuing its usual editorial consideration of the article. The investigation has delayed the progress of the article for several months.
Should the journal inform the accuser’s institution of these events?
Are there any other steps the journal should take?
There was obviously an existing dispute between the reviewer and the author and it was suggested that they should settle their argument between them. However, it was felt that this would not happen as they were no longer on speaking terms.
As the reviewer’s actions had caused some delay in the processing of the authors’ manuscript, it was suggested that the editor might like to determine if the reviewer had an undeclared conflict of interest. The injured party in this case was the author of the paper, and one possible course of action would be to suggest to the author that he write to the reviewer’s institution and complain about the reviewer’s behaviour.
It was felt that the editor should not write to the reviewer’s institution, as he had no evidence that the paper was deliberately delayed by the reviewer. However, he might wish to write a moderately worded letter to the reviewer, pointing out concerns about his behaviour and including details about what is expected of reviewers of papers for the journal. While it would be up to the editor to decide whether or not to use the reviewer in future, any suggestion of producing a “blacklist” of unsuitable reviewers was to be rejected.
In short, the editor in chief wrote to the complainant indicating that the journal had asked an independent expert to review the evidence presented, and that the result of the inquiry was that no evidence to support the complaint could be found. The complainant was informed that the journal intended to go ahead with the publication of the article. The author was also informed of this decision.
The article has been published, and no further communication from the complainant has been received.
We are aware, however, that the complainant has subsequently raised similar objections with another journal after the publication of a separate article in this area by the same author. We have informed the editor in chief of that journal of the circumstances of the complaint lodged with us, our investigation, and actions.
A paper was received by Journal A in August and sent to Dr X for comment. Dr X advised that the paper was not original in the light of a publication by his own research group earlier in the year in another journal, and that furthermore, this study contained over twice as many patients as the paper the journal had sent to him to referee. The journal decided to reject the paper on the strength of Dr X’s report. Two months later Dr X submitted a paper to Journal A on exactly the same research topic, based on a combination of patient data from several research centres, but giving a much larger sample size than either of the aforementioned papers. The journal decided to reject the paper, as it did not add enough to previously published research. The journal editors thought that Dr X had a competing interest and that the authors of the paper submitted in August might have had cause for complaint had they known the referee was about to submit a related article to the same journal. The journal requires referees to declare a financial conflict of interest and asks referees to consider declaring other competing interests, although this is voluntary. Dr X did not mention at the time he was refereeing for the journal that he was planning to submit a closely related competing article. Should this be taken further?
The referee should have declared his/her conflict of interest and declined to referee the paper. _ The editor should reconsider the paper, informing the authors that the referee had behaved badly by not stating his/her competing interest.
A member of the editorial board of Journal A was approached by an overseas colleague with a strange tale. An epidemiological study had been conducted in the community around an industrial facility, funded by a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers. The study concluded that health effects in the community were related to exposures emanating from the facility. A paper based on the study was submitted to Journal A and rejected. It was also submitted in support of a lawsuit (relating to the same plaintiffs). As part of the “discovery” process, the author, who was an expert witness for the plaintiffs, disclosed that the paper had been rejected by Journal A and he had to submit to the court the reviewers’ reports. The reports were seen by the overseas colleague. One review was detailed and critical; the other was general and positive, and recommended publication. It emerged in court that the positive review came from an individual who was working on behalf of the plaintiffs as a paid expert and who “had had a relationship with the study author for more than 10 years. ” The primary question from the overseas colleague is whether the reviewer was nominated by the author or was chosen quite independently by the Journal. Bias by the reviewer and collusion seems more likely if the reviewer was nominated by the author. Journal A encourages nomination of suitable reviewers, but only uses them sometimes, and always with another one chosen separately. The editor of Journal A is seeking legal advice about revealing whether the reviewer was nominated by the author. The Journal is also going to introduce a specific requirement for reviewers to declare any possible competing interests. This would not necessarily prevent malpractice, but it does show reviewers this is an issue that is taken seriously. This case is submitted as a reminder that reviewers can also misbehave and to seek guidance about any further action required. The positive review by the reviewer suspected of misconduct was apparently presented during the court case in support of the scientific validity of the paper rejected by Journal A. Legal advice to the editor of Journal A is that it is permissible to reveal that the reviewer in question was nominated by the author of the paper (as is the case) but without offering any comment on the case.
_ This is a case for the record. _ It is a salutary reminder about requesting that both reviewers and authors declare competing interests. _ Authors can pressurise editors, but they should resist such pressure. _ When reviewer comments are sent to authors perhaps they should carry a disclaimer.
The Editor provided a signed declaration stating the journal’s practice of asking authors to suggest reviewer(s) who may or may not be used for that purpose. The Editor’s declaration stated that the reviewer in question was nominated by the authors and that no competing interest was declared by either the authors or the reviewer.
An editor sent out a paper to three reviewers. One of them, who gave the paper a favourable review, enclosed a research letter on the same topic, with, in his view, a better study design. He told the editor that the author of the paper had encouraged him to submit it during a meeting they both attended. He added that he thought its inclusion would make a good complementary pair of papers. The editor sent the research letter to the two other reviewers who had reviewed the first paper. The paper’s design was criticised by all three reviewers and the paper was rejected. The peer review of the research letter is ongoing but is so far favourable. Did the editor act correctly in having the research letter reviewed as well? Is it fair to reject the paper but accept the research letter?
_ The reviewer had abused his position by discussing the paper with the author. _ He should also have declined to review the paper due to the close association with his own research. _ A referee might review a paper badly because it is not in their interests to see similar work published before their own. _ The paper should have perhaps been sent to new reviewers, although editors often select people in the same areas to review, and if it is a small area of research the choice of referees can be very limited. _ No harm had been done as the author of the letter openly admitted his conversation with the other author and had been encouraged to submit it. _ The editor was therefore right to review the letter in the usual way.
A paper reporting an attitudinal study was sent for peer review. The editor received a letter from the reviewer stating that as he was personally acknowledged in the paper, he felt there was a conflict of interest and so unable to review the paper. The reviewer also pointed out that the research in question was part of a larger commissioned project with strict conditions of confidentiality. The persons surveyed were given assurance that the views expressed would remain unattributed and that the information gathered would be for research purposes only. The reviewer asked the editor to put the article on hold until he clarified whether or not the publication of part of the research findings would be acceptable,given the confidentiality agreements undertaken. What should the editor do now?
There is a breach of confidentiality here. The editor should go back to the first author seeking clarification of the supposed premature publication/breach of confidentiality, stating that a reviewer had brought this to his attention. If the reply is unsatisfactory, the editor should refer to the head of the institution. The reviewer should not lead this; the editor should.
The editor was satisfied with the lead author’s reply and publication proceeded.
We sent a paper to a reviewer, who suggested that we should reject the paper, principally because he thought it “virtually identical to a paper in press by the same authors”. We rejected the paper with these comments. The author came back to us saying that he did not believe that he had had a fair review of his paper because, he thought, the reviewer had a conflict of interest. He wrote: “The individual involved is situated in a rival institute with my department and is presently undergoing negotiation to merge his and my department. This puts us in direct conflict with each other both academically and with regard to administrative details. Therefore I do not believe we have received a non-biased review of our paper.” He also wrote: “comments on our paper, most of which were unfavourable, have been cited by this individual to other senior academics and editors of other journals.” The author did not make any response to the accusation of duplicate publication. I wrote back to this author saying that if he has correctly identified the reviewer (which seems likely), then I am disturbed that the reviewer did not declare a conflict of interest. I also asked him to respond to the point of possible redundant publication. I haven’t heard from the author. What should I do now?
The reviewer should be told of the author’s allegations. At a minimum, the reviewer should have revealed his conflict of interest and probably not have reviewed the paper. There is fault on both sides: conflict of interest and redundancy. The reviewer may simply have an interest rather than a conflict of interest. We can not go back to reviewer without the author’s permission. If the author gives it , then the editor is obliged to inform the reviewer of the allegations. Shoddy behaviour on both sides, does the editor have a responsibility or should he walk away? Conclusion It is the duty of the editor to outreach to all parties possibly at fault. Affirmative action should be taken and the obligations of both parties should be defined. (1) Follow up the accusation of redundant publication with the author. (2) If publication is redundant, the author should be reprimanded. A literature search will provide evidence of previous redundancy by the author. If he has done this before then his institution should be informed. (3) If the author gives permission, then the reviewer should be questioned about conflict of interest; without the author’s permission, this would have to be left alone. Further action The editor should write a third time to the author (the earlier letters not having been acknowledged) telling him that he can not let the matter rest. If there is still no reply then the editor should contact the reviewer requesting clarification of the evidence of redundancy.
Neither the author not the reviewer have responded, and the case remains unresolved.