The journal submitting this case to COPE sent a paper [paper 1] to a reviewer who wrote this in the review: “…That apart, this manuscript seems to be another report of the already published **** trial, looking at the data from a slightly different angle. I am not convinced, however, that the data is worthy of so many submissions.”
And, in a separate email to the handling editor: “Just by chance, I have already reviewed a paper [paper 2] by the same group involving the same study for xxxx journal recently. I do not know the outcome of the refereeing process at that journal, but it does seem to me that the two papers are similar in many respects, and too similar to be both published. I have taken the unusual step of attaching the paper [paper 2] I was asked to review by that journal so you can decide whether or not you really wish me to comment on the one submitted to you. If you think this is "inappropriate", just ignore the attachment, let me know, and I will review your paper tomorrow. Sorry for this convoluted message, but I thought you ought to be aware of the situation.”
The handling editor felt that paper 2 did not overlap too much and when the editorial team discussed paper 1, paper 2 was included in the pack of reading material and read by all or most of the editors, the external editorial adviser and the statistician.
At the meeting, the team discussed the ethical problem raised by this and decided that:
The reviewer should have said “I know about this other paper - would you like to see it (not “here it is, tear it up if you like”)?”
The editors should have contacted the authors and said “the reviewer’s told us you have another similar paper - you should have mentioned this in your cover letter, can you tell us about it now?”
The editors should not have read paper 2 without the author’s permission because it was being considered in confidence at another journal.
Outcome so far:
The editorial team discussed paper 1 on its merits and rejected it because the research question was only indirectly answered with an over technical analysis and because the paper did not add enough to previously published work, including the author’s own.
The editors did not mention to the authors that they had seen paper 2.
The editors agreed to ask COPE’s advice on whether to take the ethical problem further.
Questions for COPE:
(1) Should the editors tell the authors all the above now, apologising, and explaining again that there were standalone reasons for rejecting paper 1?
(2) Doing so would unblind the reviewer of paper 2: this journal uses open (signed) peer review but the other journal doesn’t. Should the editors seek the reviewer’s permission before contacting the authors?
As there were standalone reasons for rejecting paper 1, the Forum agreed that contacting the authors would serve no purpose. The advice was to contact the reviewer and explain that he should not have sent paper 2 to the editor, breaching confidentiality. The reviewer should have raised the issue with the editor stating that he had concerns regarding the paper but should not have shared confidential information. All agreed that the reviewer should be made aware of his mistake so as to prevent the occurrence of such an incident in the future.
The editor concerned has found this a useful learning experience. The reviewer was contacted (very tactfully but making it clear that he too had slipped up). No reply has been received to date.