An associate editor handling a paper for this journal reported to the editor-in-chief that he had not yet been able to recruit a single reviewer—all those who have been contacted had declined or not responded. The paper is in scope for the journal, it seems of reasonably quality from a brief read and the associate editor is appropriate; but this is a small and specialised field, and finding expert and unconflicted reviewers is proving challenging (not helped by the paper length and the sophistication of the paper).
We are persevering but if we cannot recruit reviewers soon we intend to write to the authors telling them of the situation and asking whether they want to withdraw the paper.
Questions (1) If they do not want to withdraw the paper, are we ethically obliged to keep trying to find reviewers? (2) Or do our editorial responsibilities only extend to making ‘reasonable attempts’ to find reviewers?
The Forum agreed this is a very common problem. If the editor believes the paper has merit, he should try his best to find a suitable reviewer. Some members of the Forum said that in cases where this is difficult, they often ask their editorial board members or call in favours from other colleagues. But it is up to the editor to decide in which instances he should pursue the quest for reviewer—for some papers this will be warranted, but for others it may not. If a lot of reviewers have refused the paper for example, does this imply the paper has little merit?
The Forum agreed that it is very important to keep the author updated—it is fine for the editor to communicate to the author that he is having problems finding a reviewer, and that although he will try his best, he may not be able to succeed. One suggestion for a solution was to consider asking several reviewers to review different parts of the paper, especially for those papers that are highly technical or complicated.
The editor agreed with the advice of the Forum. Although it does not solve any particular case he was grateful for the feedback from others. In this particular case, part of the problem was that the paper was from a specialist subarea of the field, with only a few people working in it, so there was only a limited pool of possible reviewers. In the end, the editor was able to obtain two reviews, both of which said "reject" so that was the decision in the end, as confirmed by the associate editor. The editor tries to get three reviewers for each paper, but routinely rejects on two high confidence ones.
An essay was submitted to a specialty medical journal. In the essay, the author described an ethical dilemma—involving patient care—encountered while in medical school. The manuscript received favourable reviews, although the reviewers expressed concern about the author’s career if the essay was published. The editor called the author to discuss the ramifications of publication, and then the author was sent a letter requesting revisions. The revised manuscript was submitted and accepted for publication. Upon publication, the chair of the university medical school department discussed in the essay called the editor to express dismay at the essay and disappointment in not receiving advance notice of publication.
The editor did not feel that advance notice was the correct procedure because the essay was considered confidential, as all manuscripts are considered prior to publication. The university was offered the opportunity to reply to the essay via a letter to the editor, which they have done.
Was it correct (and ethical) to not notify the department because of the confidentiality of the manuscript? Or, was it incorrect (and unethical) to not notify the department because of possible damage to the department’s reputation upon publication of this essay?
If the journal should have alerted the department or university, where in the scheme of things should this have occurred?
Would the journal need the author’s permission prior to contacting the university?
What if the author said no?
The Forum agreed with the editor’s course of action, in giving the university the opportunity to reply to the essay by way of a letter to the editor. The Forum agreed that the issue should be handled as you would any letter to the editor.
If the editor is confident in the review process and the review process is solid, then it would not be appropriate to notify the university in advance. Any issues with the data should hopefully come out in the review process. The editor’s duty is to the author. The fact that the authors were students may be important in specialised situations, such as those involving patients, but if the author has ownership of the data and it is their intellectual property, then there should be no issue here.
All agreed that the editor was right to give the university the right to reply. It is then up to the editor to decide if this is publishable.
The case was discussed at a recent editorial board meeting, and the editors consider the case now closed.
An editor invited an author to submit a paper to his journal. Colleagues of the author suggested “unsubmission” because it could be damaging to the author’s career. The editor contacted the publisher and requested that the paper be withdrawn. The editor then contacted the author asking if he would consider publishing the paper anonymously (ie, with no identifying names). The editor did not consult with the publisher on this matter.
The publisher has placed the paper on hold, seeking guidance on author transparency. Publishing anonymously is typically not permitted by the publisher because of concerns about author transparency and because the publisher believes that they should publish in the highest ethical regard. There are no patient confidentiality or privacy issues associated with this case.
The publisher would like the Forum’s view on the balance between anonymity and author transparency. Should there be a set policy in place?
The Forum noted that this was an unusual case, and that the only examples of papers published anonymously that they were aware of were in a situation where an author is at risk of physical danger or is in fear for his/her life if his/her name were to be published or associated with specific criticism.
The Forum agreed this was an editorial decision and that it is up to the editor to weigh up the issues and decide on balance whether or not to publish anonymously. The Forum warned that the editor needs to be certain that the author is genuine and his concerns are valid, since if the claims are later found to be untrue, this could damage the credibility of the editor and the journal. Is the editor comfortable publishing anonymously solely because of possible damage to the author’s career? Is the editor confident that he is knowledgeable in this specific discipline that he can make an editorial judgement? Is he confident that the claims will not be subject to any legal disputes? The editor has a duty to ensure that he has taken appropriate steps to ensure that what he publishes is correct.
After discussion, the publisher was willing to publish the anonymous article under these exceptional circumstances, but the publisher would not support this in the future without a risk assessment of each case. The editor agreed and understood that if the transparency policy of the journal is called into question, the editor will stand by, prepare to explain and defend what has been the editor’s decision.
Under certain circumstances, the editors of journal A use ‘arbitrating’ reviewers. These reviewers advise an editor where, for example, an editor has split reviewer reports or a rebuttal to a decision that was based on split reviewer reports. This reviewer has sight of the other reviewers’ reports as he/she both evaluates the manuscript and assists the editor, through their advice, to arrive at an informed editorial decision. Historically, the use of arbitrating reviewers has arisen out of a discussion between an author and the handling editor, with their use being at the discretion of the editor. More recently, the use of arbitrating reviewers has become more routine and has not always involved a discussion with the authors concerned.
The journal’s editors are currently reviewing this peer review option, partly in response to an author’s complaint that arbitrating reviewers bias the peer review process. We would welcome the committee’s feedback on the use of arbitrating reviewers and to have their advice regarding any additional safeguards the journal should put in place when using these reviewers to maintain unbiased peer review. We will use this advice to formulate a new set of editorial guidelines on arbitrating reviewers.
This interesting case provoked much discussion. Most agreed that they would not use the term “arbitrating reviewers”. The third reviewer is providing extra information for the editor, who will then decide whether or not to accept the paper. So the editor is in fact the arbitrator, not the reviewer. By using the term “arbitrating reviewers”, it could send a confusing message to the author that the reviewer is the one making the final decision or “arbitrating” on the acceptance of the paper. The editor can keep the author informed of the process, but does not need to give details on how many reviewers are consulted.
The Forum advised that the editor should obtain consent from the reviewers to share their reports with a third reviewer. The Forum noted that there is no evidence that the editor is introducing bias, even by showing a third reviewer the previous reviews. All agreed that the editor needs to make the decision on what he thinks is best for his journal. The journal could, perhaps, audit the process and see if there is any evidence of bias (i.e. whether papers that undergo review by a third reviewer are more or less likely to be accepted than those that are reviewed by only two).
COPE's feedback was discussed at the journal’s annual editors meeting and alternatives to the arbitrating reviewer arrangement are being considering, such as changing the name used for these reviewers, or perhaps seeking advice on papers that have conflicting reports in a different way.
This case was posted on the WAME (World Association of Medical Editors) list-serv and the editor (from India) asked whether COPE could provide guidance.
An author (who happens to also be a journal editor) submitted a manuscript to a journal listed in one of the major medical databases. Having heard nothing for several months he tried to contact the editor to discover what was happening. At one stage he also stated that he would withdraw his manuscript from the journal – but none of his communications were acknowledged or answered. Finally, 18 months after submission, he received an apologetic letter from the editor stating that his manuscript was rejected because the journal had been unable to find any suitable reviewers. Is this acceptable?
The COPE Code of Conduct states that editors should ensure ‘timely’ peer review but we have never attempted to define ‘timely’ – should we do this?
All agreed that waiting 18 months for a decision on a manuscript was wholly unacceptable, especially as no acknowledgement was sent.
The Forum acknowledged that finding suitable reviewers can be a problem, particularly in specialist areas. But even in these situations, the author should be contacted within 2–3 months and kept updated on the situation. If it is a very specialist area, editors should perhaps ask the author to suggest 5 reviewers and reject the paper if he can’t. If a journal gives an average time to acceptance, then the author has a right to pursue the issue after this time. COPE’s advice would be if no progress is being made within 3-4 months, contact the author and keep them updated.
The editor in chief received a letter to the editor criticising a paper published earlier in the journal. The editor first told the author of the letter that he would publish the commentary after he had given the authors of the criticised paper a chance to respond. When asked by the author of the letter, he later added that he would also publish the letter if the authors failed to respond.
The corresponding author of the paper explained that the same person had attacked every single article from his group for about 5 years, that they had responded to the critics adequately in the past and declined doing so again in this instance. He portrayed the letter as a disingenuous and fraudulent commentary and asked that we do not publish the letter, which in his view would be a disservice to science.
He attached to his email a correspondence with the editor of another journal, detailing a similar case for one of his previous articles. He also copied in four editors of other journals who received similar commentaries from the same person, as well as one opinion leader in the field. The four editors had rejected the letters and two had banned the author of the letters from publishing in their journal. One of these editors replied to confirm the story, stating that in his view, the letter he had received was not founded on fact, and backed the request not to publish this new commentary.
At this stage, the editor of our journal contacted me as managing editor to ask if he could reject the letter outright. I advised that he could, but only based on the scientific merit of the letter, and not on the history of its author. He sent the letter for review to the associate editor who handled the criticised paper, and who briefly concluded that the commentary was probably not worth publishing. The editor then rejected the letter, initially mentioning various peer reviewers, when in fact there was only one short set of comments.
The author of the letter was quite irate as, based on the editor’s initial replies, he expected his letter to be published in any case (with or without a response from the authors) and found the peer review process and decision letter that he received unsatisfactory. A first clarification of our position resulted in a long threatening point-by-point response, to which the editor responded by reasserting his position and clarifying again why the letter had been reviewed by a referee and himself and subsequently rejected.
The author of the letter then changed tactics and sent the publisher a rather libellous letter in which he argued that the editor is incompetent, was not impartial and was influenced by the author of the article; that the author of the paper and the peer reviewer (whose identity he does not know) have undisclosed conflicts of interest; and that opposite interests and prevalent opinions, relayed by a mainstream advocacy group and the WHO, colluded to silence him, a whistleblower. One of the assumed conflicts of interest mentioned involve the head of an institution from which the authors received a grant and is therefore very indirect. Another, however, relates to a global advocacy group, endorsed by the WHO and which seems to reflect the predominant opinion in the field, and which the authors presumably belong to. The corresponding author of the paper calls this group a forum for exchange on the topic, but it has a clear health policy agenda. The authors did not mention this in their declaration of interest.
Our publisher informed him that she was taking his concerns seriously and would ask me to investigate in accordance with COPE’s guidelines, particularly in relation to our disclosure policy. Although the author of the letter accused us of being in breach of the COPE policy on fair peer review in an earlier correspondence, he then replied that in this case COPE’s ‘concepts’ are meaningless and, for example, anonymous peer review or impartiality are impossible, since he is the only researcher “who has exposed a long series of frauds” on the topic. He went on to reiterate his request that we (a) do not contact the authors of the paper he criticised (he was initially fine with the authors responding to his critique), (b) ask referees specifically if they belong to the advocacy group discussed above and (c) send, if needed, his blinded manuscript to ‘independent’ (from the advocacy group mentioned and industries) reviewers, of which he proposes three names.
We have not replied to this last email and decided to seek COPE’s advice on how to best close the case and what we should have done better earlier. In particular, I'd be interested in your opinion on: — how the editor should have communicated with the author of the letter in the first place? What are the main weaknesses in our handling of the case? — if the authors of the criticised paper belong to an advocacy group, should they disclose this in their declaration of interest section? — how to respond to the author of the letter about allegations of unfair peer review, and his rejection of a blinded peer review system? — should we, and how could we, check whether the author of the letter is genuinely trying to make valid points against prevalent opinion? — on the other hand, should he have an undisclosed agenda, should we take any action against him?
His letters and emails are often unconvincing, based on assumptions, defamatory and threatening, and he seems to belong to an opposite advocacy groups without disclosing it. In addition, the bulk of his contributions to the literature is made of commentaries criticising articles but he does not appear to publish any original research himself.
The COPE Code of Conduct states that editors must be willing to consider cogent criticisms of work published in their journal. However, the editor needs to decide if this is “cogent criticism” or not. The Forum suggested there were three issues here: (1) whether the editor should publish the letter; (2) the undisclosed conflict of interest of the authors; and (3) the defamation of the editor on websites.
Regarding whether the editor should publish the letter, the Forum noted that editors have a duty to publish letters unless they are factually incorrect or libellous, and it is the responsibility of the editor to make that decision. Some of the members of the Forum argued that an editor should veer towards publishing everything, while others noted that there are different types of letters in different journals and it is not always appropriate to publish. However, all agreed that the editor should not make false claims (saying that the letter would be published with or without a response from the authors and then going back on that decision) and that the journal needs to tighten its editorial processes. The journal should have a clear process for handling letters. Are they peer-reviewed? The decision to publish a letter should be based solely on its academic merit.
Regarding the undisclosed conflict of interest of the authors, the editor should contact the authors directly and ask them to respond to this accusation and emphasise that non-financial conflicts of interest are also very important. If it transpires that the authors do have a conflict of interest, the editor could publish a correction. The editor should also check the journal’s policy on this issue.
On the third point, if an editor is defamed on a blog or website, what can he do? Some suggested a dignified silence as the best option as otherwise it can fuel the problem and encourage more debate. However, all agreed that if the accusations are potentially libellous then the editor should seek legal advice.
I contacted Dr C, the author of the letter, to let him know that his case had been discussed at the COPE Forum and to reiterate our decision not to publish his letter. Most members present, if not all, supported the view that the editor in chief can reject a letter or commentary at his discretion. I sent a brief overview of the discussion and explained that the COPE Forum was of the opinion that declarations of interest should relate only to direct potential conflicts of interest. That meant that the disclosure in the criticised paper was satisfactory and appropriate.
The remaining question concerned the author’s role within an ‘advocacy group’.
I said we would contact the author and ask him to clarify the purpose of the group, their involvement in it and whether they think it might be a conflict of interest. We would then assess their response against our current requirements regarding declarations of interest.
Dr C quickly sent a couple of inflammatory emails in his usual style, where he repeated that there is a “universal conflict of interest that must be disclosed” because 90% of authors, editors and reviewers belong to the same bias ‘advocacy group.’ He then went on to contradict himself and, in my view, invalidate his only claim which may have had some merit:
“I would like to clarify that [the group] is absolutely not an ‘advocacy/regulatory group’. To take a modern example, it is something like Facebook where authors [...] advertise and publish the kind of publication that I have criticised in details for their flaws. In that case I don’t really see what the problem is.”
I intended to get the author’s opinion on this but have not pursued the matter.
I’ve not heard anything more from Dr C since and consider the case closed.
You can listen to the podcast of this case from the menu on the right
Our journal has decided that members of the editorial board are allowed to submit manuscripts which will undergo peer-review directed by the present or former editor-in-chief. It can be difficult, and I would like to present one example.
A group of authors (including one member of the editorial board) submitted five manuscripts during a period of 17 days. The handling of some manuscripts was delayed for two reasons. At first, essential forms (such as the conflict of interest statements) were missing and the editor-in-chief received the manuscripts 10–35 days after submission when the administrative checklist was complete. In addition, it was difficult to recruit reviewers who were willing to assess the manuscripts over the summer, and several papers were within a rather narrow research field. The authors were sending numerous e-mails during the review process. The co-author, who was a member of the editorial board, had already contacted the editor-in-chief the day after submission of the first paper where he stated that he would appreciate it if the evaluation (including revision) was completed prior to a specific date since there was a grant application deadline. The same co-author requested a “preliminary verdict” 7–8 weeks after the peer-review process was initiated.
The editor-in-chief apologised that the handling had been delayed and provided information about the current status of the manuscripts. As the research funding deadline was getting closer, the number of e-mails increased and the authors contacted one other member of the editorial board, apparently to influence the handling of their submissions. The authors claimed that “in view of the delay in the handling” they believed that they were “entitled to a positive response about acceptance”. The authors asked if there was anyone on the editorial board who, during the afternoon, could read the manuscript and make a preliminary decision as to whether one specific paper was likely to be accepted, even if a revision was needed afterwards, according to standard procedures. The editor-in-chief felt that such requests were not acceptable for a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
We have the following question for COPE:
Should we specifically state in our author guidelines or editorial policy that authors should not contact the handling editor during the review process? Any information regarding the process can be obtained from the editorial assistant. The role as co-author can be difficult for a member of the editorial board and I wonder if other journals have experienced similar problems?
The Forum agreed that the editor has handled this situation correctly. What is important is to have a specific procedure and clear process for handling papers from editorial board members. The peer review process should be completely transparent. The Forum told the editor to be extremely firm. All agreed that the editorial board member is abusing his position. The editor should keep accurate records and be very firm and not allow himself to be be pushed into making a decision. For the future, new editorial board members should be made aware that they will be treated like any other author. They will not be given special treatment.
Another suggestion was to put in place a procedure stating that a paper must be re-submitted after a certain time limit if all the required documents are not supplied to the journal.
We have clarified the procedure for handling manuscripts from editorial board members. All editorial board members have been informed that all necessary information regarding the progress of the peer review can be obtained from the editorial office. Editors should generally not communicate directly with the authors and that is especially important if a member of the editorial board is among the authors. Thus they will not be given special treatment. Incomplete submissions may now be unsubmitted by our editorial assistant if the required documents are not supplied within 5 days to the journal.
We would like other editors’ opinions as to whether adhering to the journal’s policy on trial registration may contribute towards the non-publication of trial results (and thus bias in the literature).
All of our journals have the same policy on trial registration—for studies started before July 2005, we permit retrospective registration (providing it was done before submission) but for trials started after July 2005, we require registration to have been done before enrolment of the first participant.
In recent years we have tried to enforce this policy strictly and have rejected many papers reporting trial results where the trial was not registered in line with our policy. A very quick audit reveals about 20 or so studies which have been rejected in the past year or so due to non-compliance. For these studies, we have informed the authors of our policy and advised them they can retrospectively register, for free, at clinicaltrials.gov, where they are also able to deposit results (should they be unable to secure journal publication).
We are now also considering removing the ‘grandfather’ clause for old trials (pre-2005) (ie, that we would be unable to consider these for publication unless they had also been prospectively registered). One specific case we handled recently relates to a large cancer screening trial, which we felt was likely to be methodologically sound, and addressed a question where there was little data in the peer reviewed literature. The results would undoubtedly have informed future clinical practice and may have had the potential to save lives—the trial results suggested benefit for a screening approach which is not currently routine practice. The trial had been done after July 2005 but was only registered some months after enrolment started. We rejected purely on the basis that the study had not been properly registered in line with our (and other journals’) policies. We did not think that selective reporting was an issue with this particular study.
However, would other editors have a concern about strict application of the registration rule (ie, that editors have a duty not just to apply policy regardless but to consider their responsibilities to the integrity of the evidence base in a more flexible way, which in some cases may be achieved by overriding their own policies)? However, we are concerned that having some laxity in our policy (eg, with the grandfather clause for older trials) may encourage triallists to think that prospective registration is not mandatory (and thus avoid registration in the future).
The advice from the Forum was that, in general, it is probably best to judge each paper on a case by case basis. Some argued for leniency in the case of trials published in and around 2005, as many authors may not have been aware of the new requirements for registration. However, whether or not a trial is registered has little bearing on the quality or ethics of the study, and so it is up to the editor to decide whether or not a study should be published. All authors should now be aware of the regulations so there is no excuse for not registering a trial. However, it was pointed out that many journals do not require trial registration and so the authors can always have their work published elsewhere. Editors need to balance the benefits of having a strict policy requiring prospective registration (which should encourage trial registration) against the harms of non-publication of individual studies that have not been properly registered but may contain valuable information.
The advice from COPE was very helpful, and we are still handling new cases which relate to this problem. Our journals have not changed their policies. We still have a strict policy requiring prospective registration for trials done since mid-2005, although we are more lenient still and permit retrospective registration for trials done before mid-2005. Very sadly, the journals continue to reject some numbers of trials which were not registered in line with our policies. We continue to refer authors to clinicaltrials.gov to deposit their results along with their registry details.
Two manuscripts were submitted, reviewed as sister manuscripts by the journal, and rejected on the basis of negative reviews.
The author took issue with one particularly negative review and appealed our decision. We sought the advice of an editorial board member who reviewed the manuscripts and the reports and agreed that the correct editorial decision was made.
The author now wishes to see the manuscript files, including the names of the reviewers, as well as the names of those we approached to review the manuscripts but declined.
We have refused because the journal operates a peer review policy whereby the authors are blinded to the reviewers’ identities. We feel that this would violate our reviewers’ right to confidentiality and may expose the reviewers to hostile action on the part of the author.
However, we do think that authors may have a right to see their file—we are willing to allow them to do so, as long as all names and identifying details have been removed from reports and correspondence. However, we have not encountered this request before.
We ask the Forum whether they have seen similar requests and, if so, how were those requests handled? Furthermore, do Forum members have explicit policies documenting what they allow authors to see with regard to manuscript files, and are these policies made public in their information for authors?
As the peer review process is confidential and privileged between the editor and reviewer, it is up to the editor to decide how much information to disclose to the author. All agreed that the editor should not comply with the author’s request to have the names of the reviewers. The Forum agreed that the author does not have a right to see his files although if the editor wishes to show them to him, then he may do so, provided the anonymity of those providing confidential advice is respected.
The final outcome was that we refused to disclose any information to the author and the author chose not to pursue this any further.
We publish an online service in which faculty members (well reputed clinicians and researchers) select, rate and evaluate influential articles of their choice. Members of the faculty can submit “dissents” to evaluations: dissents are to the fact that an article is selected, as opposed to any specific faculty member’s evaluation. The original faculty members who wrote the evaluation are then allowed to respond with a “follow-up”.
Member A submitted an evaluation of an article (all evaluations are positive, by default, although criticisms are encouraged). There were six other such evaluations. Member B wrote a “dissent”. There was one other “dissent”.
Member A decided to respond to Member B with a “follow-up”. In the follow-up, he specifically mentions Member B. Although it was a bit petulant, we decided to publish it as it did make a true scientific point. Both faculty members were informed of the publication.
Member B was very unhappy with Member A’s comments, which he felt were personal and demeaning. He threatened to resign from the faculty.
We decided that we were wrong to publish the petulant comments of Member A; we should have edited them so they were less emotive and not directed specifically at another Member (as is our approach with dissents).
We suggested to Member B that we would take the “follow-up” comment offline, edit it so it was less personal, send the edited version to faculty Member A for approval (explaining only that we feel the words were too emotive), give him the chance to edit them further and then send the final version to him (Member B) to “check”, although we made it clear that he had no power to veto it, but rather to ensure that the edited comments were not seen as personal anymore. He agreed to the approach.
We did all of the above. Member A was happy to have his comments edited, we showed it to Member B who was happy with how it read, and we published it.
Member B has now agreed not to resign and is considering whether to respond to Member A’s comments.
We are keen to have debate around whether an article truly is of value, which is why we encourage “dissents” (we also invite authors to respond to any criticisms). However, we need to be conscious that our faculty volunteer their time for free and may be discouraged from participating if they get into a public spat. We would like COPE’s opinion and guidance on how we dealt with this case, and if we should have done anything differently. For instance:
Were we right to remove the initial “follow-up” comment from the site?
Should we have been more open with Member A as to why we were asking to edit his words?
Should we have a policy on the “tone” of dissents and follow-ups, or is this just common sense (ie, keep it civil and constructive)?
Was there anything else we should have considered?
The Forum commented that it is inevitable that you will get personal comments in this type of situation when reviewers are evaluating articles chosen by other people. However, the Forum agreed that both members were perhaps a bit petty. Some argued that the follow-up comments should have been edited initially to remove the personal comments before posting on the website. Others agreed that the editor should have been more open with member A and told him the reasons for editing his commentary. However, in the end, both reviewers were happy and so the Forum congratulated the editor for his handling of the situation. The Forum noted that perhaps we have to accept that sometimes an editor may to moderate what people say but reviewers should be expected to conform to the normal scientific instructions for contributors.