A manuscript was submitted to one of our journals in a special issue. The initial submission included 15 authors with 9 affiliations. The authors were part of a consortium which has now been disbanded. The manuscript was provisionally accepted for publication.
At this point, three of the authors requested to be removed from the author list, citing irreconcilable differences with the corresponding author. When queried, the authors agreed that they qualified for authorship (as per the ICMJE criteria). One of them informed the publisher that three junior members of his research group also qualified for authorship but had never been included in the author list. When contacted, these junior three researchers requested to be included as authors.
The manuscript's publication was put on hold during these checks. The corresponding author was unhappy at the delay in publication. They denigrated and questioned the integrity of the institution where these researchers were based and claimed that one of three authors was involved in perverting peer review in another, named, journal (not related to the publisher). The corresponding author made it clear that they would refuse to accept any recommendations from the three junior researchers' institution if they were to become involved. The corresponding author also insisted that the three removed authors be included in the acknowledgements. The three removed authors explicitly stated that they did not want their names included anywhere on the paper.
The publisher notified the corresponding author that the ICMJE guidelines recommend receiving explicit written consent from anyone included on acknowledgements. The publisher also continued to clarify the situation with the three junior researchers, informing them that such cases should be taken to their institution. As the publication was still on hold, the corresponding author threatened legal action and full media coverage for alleged censorship and unethical behaviour. A journalist for an international newspaper was copied into these threats.
The publisher took the following actions:
- Removed the three authors from author list, as per their request.
- Asked all 12 remaining authors to sign an authorship form re-attesting to the authorship (the publisher's online submission system notifies all authors of manuscript submission).
- Included the three removed authors' names in the body of the article where a summary of the consortium's meeting and attendees was noted.
- Informed the three junior researchers that the publisher would consider a corrigendum changing authorship if they could prove qualification for authorship, according to ICMJE guidelines.
- Proceeded with publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should the publisher have held publication of the article until the findings of the junior researchers provided a report? • If this issue did become a media concern, how much of the above summary should the publisher publicly divulge, if anything?
The general advice from COPE is that journals should always hold off publication of a paper until an authorship issue is resolved. That is what COPE recommends and this advice is outlined in the COPE flowcharts. It is not up to the journal to decide who qualifies for authorship. The Forum agreed that the only option for the journal was to stall publication while the authorship issue was resolved and hence the criticism of the journal for this is unfair.
The Forum noted the importance of the institution and that the editor might still consider contacting them, even if the authors say they will not abide by the findings. The institution can also play their part in terms of educating the three junior researchers. It would be best if the institution, rather than the journal, made the decision to publish a corrigendum in relation to the junior researchers if it is proved that they qualify for authorship, according to ICMJE guidelines. The Forum advised waiting for the institution to provide this proof.
The key issue is to provide transparency. The editor might like to consider publishing an editorial on this issue, laying out all the facts.
A journal appointed a new editor-in-chief to their journal. He had previously been on the editorial board of the journal for 10 years and the editorial registrar for 5 years. During the handover period, it came to the journal’s attention that he was due to appear in front of a tribunal for research fraud. By agreement with the journal, he stepped down until the outcome of the tribunal, and the editor-in-chief of another journal took over as acting editor-in-chief in the interim.
The outcome of the tribunal was that many of the charges against the editor were upheld, so he has stepped down permanently. The charges that the tribunal found him guilty of (which did not relate to any papers published in the journal) included fabricating data, accessing electronic patient records without permission, breaching patient confidentiality, submitting a paper knowing that his coauthors had not approved it as a final version, forging his coauthors’ signatures on copyright forms, and referencing a particular fictitious individual in the acknowledgments (apparently as a private joke).
During his time on the editorial board, he published numerous articles in the journal, including two original research articles, nine reviews, three editorials/commentaries and one case study. As far as the journal is aware, there are no substantive issues with any of these papers, which underwent the usual review procedures, but several reference the fictitious person in the acknowledgements.
During his time as editorial registrar, he had input in editorial decisions, as a reviewer and associate editor, and by assisting the then editor-in-chief with decisions on the two categories of papers in our journal which undergo internal review rather than full double-blind peer review. During the weeks when the editor-in-chief role was being handed over, before he stepped down, he made the final decision on several manuscripts as editor-in-chief.
Questions for the COPE Forum
• To what extent should the journal consider the editor’s previous publications in the journal as 'suspect'? The journal will publish a correction relating to the fictitious acknowledgments; should they publish any additional note of editorial concern against his papers? • To what extent should the journal revisit editorial decisions he has previously been involved with during his 10 years' association with the journal? • The acting editor-in-chief has not been appointed editor-in-chief according to the stringent procedures recommended by COPE/ICMJE. Is there anything the journal can do to mitigate this situation during the process of appointing a new editor, which may take several months?
The Forum noted that thankfully this is a relatively rare event. The journal needs to handle this well to avoid reputational damage. Hence the journal needs to think in terms of a public explanation or statement of what has happened
The Forum agreed there needs to be a thorough investigation. Previous papers written by the editor need to be handled on a case by case basis—hence all of the papers should be looked at if practically possible, in particular if any have medical/patient implications. The journal will need to carry out due diligence for these papers. While the acknowledgement issue is relatively minor, it is very unprofessional behaviour. The core issue is whether there is any likelihood of problems with the papers that were written by the editor. This is not dissimilar to institutional handling of research misconduct—is the misconduct a one-off or a systemic problem?
Regarding his input in editorial decisions, as a reviewer and associate editor, and in assisting the then editor-in-chief, the advice was to do a spot check of, say, 10% of the decisions, so the journal is reassured there are no problems with the process or the outcome of any of the decisions. In particular, decisions he took himself or where he went against a decision of the reviewers, for example, should be looked at carefully.
The journal needs to reassure potential authors that they have processes in place to be confident in what they have published in the past—otherwise the journal risks serious reputational damage.
The Forum suggested that this may be too difficult and indeed inappropriate to handle only internally and the journal might consider engaging an external, independent group of people to deal with the issue on behalf of the journal.
The journal needs to develop a process to appoint a new editor-in-chief that ensures that this situation does not happen in the future. Again, it is essential to have external people in the selection process.
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.
Our journal uses an internally transparent process where throughout the editor or peer review process, authors, editors and reviewers are all aware of the identities of who is involved. Reviewers are also told—when initially solicited to do a peer review—that they will be named on the final article manuscript as a reviewer. Prior to publication, the pre-print version of a text is sent to reviewers for their approval to be named (or not) as a reviewer on the article. We do not currently publish the content of the peer reviews.
We recently had concerns raised by one reviewer who disagreed with the content of the manuscript and its suitability for publication; the second reviewer was enthusiastic about the manuscript, and the editors decided to publish the text. The first reviewer accused the editors of behaving in a non-transparent manner and even of being unethical, because: (1) we did not publish the content of the critical peer review and (2) we did not have a disclaimer on the text stating that reviewers were not responsible for the content of the published manuscript (which we had assumed was obvious).
We have thus begun the process of adding the following disclaimer to all our peer reviewed texts (and backdating to all those previously published): “Reviewer evaluations are given serious consideration by the editors and authors in the preparation of manuscripts for publication. Nonetheless, being named as a reviewer does not necessarily denote approval of a manuscript by the reviewer; the editors of the journal take full responsibility for final acceptance and publication of an article”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What are the benefits of going to fully transparent review, with publication of the content of peer reviews? • We are aware of the risks (eg, reviewers feeling inhibited from making critical comments for fear of reprisal). Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
The Forum recommended consulting the previous Forum discussion on “Who owns peer reviews” which was discussed on 9 September 2015 and covers some of the issues raised here. A summary of the discussion can be downloaded from the COPE website (http://publicationethics.org/resources/discussion-documents).
The Forum participants provided examples of different peer review models at their journal or publisher. Some journals have a fully transparent open peer review system and publish the reviewer reports alongside the article, with signed comments by the reviewers. These journals believe the benefits outweigh the risks. Other journals do not publish reviews because of the potential confusion or redundancy of publishing criticisms that no longer relate to the final published paper (the concerns having been addressed during revision). However, yet other journals post all versions of the manuscripts, with the revisions, along with the correspondence so people can follow the full history of the paper. This can prompt comments from readers, sometimes negative comments, but they feel this can be refreshing, and authors and readers value it. With this model, it can sometimes be harder to find reviewers, but it does not seem to have any impact on the decisions they recommend. Some publishers only publish those reviews which have approved acceptance of the paper—those who have recommended rejection do not have their names published on the paper to avoid conflict.
The Forum agreed that the journal has done the hard work in establishing an open peer review model with the reviewers, and getting the reviewer names on the published article. The next step is making the reviewer reports public. Some believe the benefits of openness outweigh the drawbacks.
We have implemented our proposed declaration on all peer-reviewed manuscripts, but after discussions we have decided not to proceed at this time with fully open peer-review. We are still exploring ideas.
Peer review in all its forms plays an important role in ensuring the integrity of the scholarly record. The process depends to a large extent on trust, and requires that everyone involved behaves responsibly and ethically. Peer reviewers play a central and critical part in the peer-review process, but too often come to the role without any guidance and unaware of their ethical obligations. COPE has produced some guidelines which set out the basic principles and standards to which all peer reviewers should adhere during the peer-review process in research publication.
Our COPE materials are available to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/
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Version 1 of the Guidelines (March 2013) can be found here.