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.
We publish “mini-reviews” of published articles. Our faculty of eminent researchers and clinicians write these evaluations. One of the conditions we insist on from our faculty is that they may not evaluate work on which they are an author. We received a review of a paper, the authorship of which was listed as:
Name A, Name B, Name C; study group X
As the reviewer was a member of “study group X”, we rejected the submission. The reviewer wrote back claiming that:
“I am not an author on the “Name A” paper. The latter is a substudy, which uses the “study group X” database. While we entered some patients into the main trial, in no way do I fulfil authorship criteria given that I never even saw a draft of the paper nor knew it was being submitted.”
We published the review with the declaration above listed as a “competing interest”. We then informed the journal in question.
Did we act correctly?
The Forum thought that this was a grey area. Even though the reviewer is not directly involved in the study, is he sufficiently removed? The case also highlights the fact that the definition of an author can be vague and different journals have different criteria. Some suggested that the journal should consider disqualifying a reviewer with any involvement in a study from publishing reviews concerning that study. This would give the reader more confidence in the system. All agreed that the best course of action is to have a policy on this issue for future such incidences.
The advised policies which members of the Forum suggested have not yet been implemented due to a massive ongoing redesign project for our website which has put many things on hold. It is unlikely this will be resolved until the new year; however, we have taken the Forum’s comments on board and intend, when the time comes, to implement the suggestions in the most thorough and transparent way possible.
In February 2007, author A and a colleague submitted a paper (paper A) to our journal, which uses double-blinded peer review. We sent paper A for external review.
Four weeks later, group B submitted a paper (paper B). The editorial office sent paper B to external reviewers, one of whom was author A. Both groups of authors are known to us and well regarded within our discipline. The reviews on both papers were received and we were on the point of writing to both groups asking for revisions when author A emailed to say that he was concerned about similarities between the two papers and felt that this was more than a coincidence. He believed that the method he had used, in the context he had applied it, was entirely original and that the authors of paper B must have had prior sight of his paper.
His case was that paper A reported a study that had been presented at a conference in April 2007. He thought that one or more of the authors of paper B might have reviewed his paper for the conference the previous November, and had used it to design an identical study. He claimed that paper B showed evidence of having been “rushed into submission”.
We contacted the conference organisers to ask if they could reveal the names of the reviewers of author A’s paper, but they refused. Our editors could find no evidence of plagiarism, except they did agree that the application of the method in this particular context was, to quote one of our editors, “striking” in its similarity.
Group B responded robustly to our request for further details. They said that although the method was new within our discipline, it was widely reported in other literatures. They produced papers (including one they had published in our own journal several years previously) to show that they had a reasonable prior claim to the use of the method, since they had been using it for some time. They argued that it was only the application to this particular context, and not the method itself, that was original.
We felt that this response was reasonable and credible. Faced with this apparent deadlock we took the view that misconduct had not been proved. Furthermore, trying to establish which group had prior claim to an idea that was already largely in the public domain would be next to impossible. We were unwilling to report any further accusations without real supporting evidence.
We therefore felt that the only course of action open to us was to level the playing field, since to do otherwise would be to rule in favour of one or other group. Accordingly, we wrote to both groups of authors and told them that:
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we had no choice but to assume that both papers had been written in good faith and that it was an example of coincidence;
We were going to publish both papers side by side once satisfactory revisions had been received (we publish dates submitted, reviewed and accepted in the journal, which would give evidence that group A had submitted first);
As group A had had the slight advantage of seeing an early draft of paper B, we felt it only fair to let group B have sight of paper A. No further exchanges between the groups would be facilitated thereafter.
We planned to discuss the matter with COPE and would report to both groups.
Author A responded to say that he felt this was unfair. He did not want his manuscript to be sent to group B since his paper was the better of the two—it had received more positive reviews—and that he himself had not gained anything by seeing group B’s manuscript. He felt that he had lost the advantage of having submitted first and that his paper should be published first.
We have three questions, therefore:
How should we now respond to author A?
Have any members of COPE experienced anything like this before and, if so, how did they resolve the matter?
And, on a more general point, how far should editors reasonably go in exploring a case like this, when it is a matter of one reputable group’s word against that of another, and there is little or no evidence either way?
The general consensus was that the editor’s course of action was reasonable, except for point (c) above—that is, most agreed that group B should not have had sight of paper A. On a general note, the Forum emphasised the fact that it is not the job of editors to adjudicate in such matters. If there is no evidence of misconduct, the authors should be advised to sort the matter out among themselves. One viewpoint was that, in retrospect, the editor should perhaps have allowed the papers to follow the usual editorial procedures, without interference, and should not have shared the information with the authors. Some argued that paper A should be published first as it was submitted first, but others suggested that from the reader’s point of view it would be more interesting for the two papers to be published together.
Both papers are likely to be accepted and once the final decisions have been made, we will send all of the documentation to our independent Quality Standards Advisory Group for a report that will be shared with the authors. The COPE report, with your permission, will form a valuable part of the documentation
A journal received a simple, cross-sectional survey of Palestinian refugees. The author was a Palestinian, employed by a charity and undertaking research based at a university overseas. The study contained new data and within the constraints of a cross-sectional survey seemed methodologically sound. The paper was sent to two peer reviewers with expertise in the area, experience in international issues in the Middle East, and an understanding of the sensitivities involved. The paper was accepted for publication after revision. The politics of the paper had a Palestinian overtone, but this was not felt to detract from the research findings. And given the clear evidence of the affiliations of the author, it was decided to respect this individual’s views and allow readers to draw their own conclusions. After publication an e-mail arrived almost immediately from a researcher in public health and a director of “conflict resolution” at an Israeli University. They did not question the scientific underpinnings of the article, but attacked the review process and accused the editors of political bias on the grounds that they had published “a scientific paper with a clear political agenda expressed through selective and misleading presentation of background facts.” The editors gave right of reply to the first author and published both the letter and the reply together. They also commented on the correspondence, pointing out that the decision to publish was based on the science and the new findings. The editors acknowledged the politics present in both the article and correspondence, but stated that they considered their readers intelligent enough to understand such issues and take them into account. They also indicated that they would review their procedures. The two Israeli correspondents also presented a political polemic and used this to attack the editorial and peer review process. This is not dissimilar to the situation in areas such as archaeology, where nationalistic narratives have become part of the ongoing battleground of the near and Middle East. - Did the editors allow any political bias to affect the peer review or editorial decision making process?
- There was no evidence of political bias, but it might have been possible to take a more careful approach, with more extensive peer review given the strong political context. - Medicine does not exist in a political vacuum and these issues need to be discussed and published.
A paper suggested that a cluster of symptoms, signs, and tests could be combined to diagnose pneumonia in general practice. The paper was rejected after being read by two editors, because it was preliminary and had not been validated in an independent population. The authors submitted a new manuscript the following year, describing the same patients and focusing on the accuracy of individual symptoms and test results in differentiating bacterial from viral chest infections. This time the paper was reviewed and considered at a selection committee before being rejected. The authors did not refer to their previous paper in the covering letter. The next year the authors submitted another new study describing the same patients, but this time exploring which symptoms and signs were associated with an antibiotic prescription and whether this was appropriate. Again they did not mention either of their previous manuscripts in the covering letter. The overlapping resubmissions were detected when one of the readers recognised the subject matter and authors’ names, which prompted a search.
- The authors should have pointed out that the paper was a resubmission. They might have thought that the volume of papers received by the journal would have made it difficult to detect multiple submissions. - The critical point is the difference between each version of the paper as it could be argued that if the authors had improved it, then resubmission would be permissible. - Sometimes authors will not take no for an answer, which is an irritant for journals. The onus is on journals to ensure that there are systems in place to detect such resubmissions. - The editors should write to the authors, explaining that multiple submission of a rejected paper is regarded as poor practice.
An article on the community based diagnosis of a common disease was submitted. The journal had never received a paper from this particular country before. The diagnostic test used in the study is known to have a low sensitivity and is not the accepted gold standard. The editors felt that as the author was a senior academic, it was likely that his/her institution would be one of the few in the country to be able to afford the gold standard test. They asked an associate editor, an acknowledged authority in this area, to look at the paper and comment on its suitability for publication. S/he recommended outright rejection, a decision with which the editors agreed. Shortly afterwards the author wrote to refute the decision, claiming that the study was one of the few from that particular region and that all the participants were from the traditional ethnic community. “The outright rejection of the article only shows that though the [publishing group] claims to be international in its outlook, it is not interested in studies from diverse cultures and societies.” S/he claimed that their study would have been given a better chance if it had been about a white community. About 25% of the articles published in the journal are international. Additionally, the journal publishes lower priority “global” pieces online only. But the journal’s rejection rates for non-UK papers were higher. The author also said that the editors had caused further offence by sending the email to a home address. But the author’s work email address did not work, prompting emails from the journal’s editorial office to repeatedly bounce back. The editors responded immediately, saying that they found the inferred accusation of racism offensive. They promised to refer the manuscript to the Journal’s ombudsman and to COPE. They invited the author to clarify and expand on his/her statements. S/he did not respond to this offer. The ombudsman agreed that the test used was notoriously insensitive. He wrote in his assessment: “Now that we have far more sensitive assays for detection of this condition it has become clear that it under reports the prevalence of the condition by a large margin. This view can be confirmed from most reviews in the literature relating to detection of this condition. In my view as journal ombudsman I believe the reviewing process to have been fair and accurate.” These comments were forwarded to the lead author. How should the editors respond now? Should the publishing group respond to this inferred accusation of racism?
- It is difficult to refute an accusation of racism. - Some journals automatically send out for review any papers where a challenge had been made about a rejection. -- But this has to be balanced against using reviewers’ time if a paper is truly poor. - Work originating from developing countries can often be unoriginal and of the “me too” variety. - The editors’ actions had been sound and had complied with good practice. - Tell the author that the journal does have a policy of encouraging scientifically sound international papers, and that the paper received due process. - Tell the author that the paper had been rejected on scientific grounds only, and that the journal had adhered to its procedures and principles, which had been confirmed by an independent ombudsman. Copy in COPE on the letter sent to the author.
A paper was submitted, detailing a small overseas trial of a drug treatment of a politically controversial disease. The treatment was moderately toxic. The paper was seen by two referees (A and B), who had considerable criticisms of the methodology used. Comments were also received from C, who was invited to review but refused, because s/he did not want his/her name known to the authors under the terms of the journal’s open peer review policy. C said that there was little justification for this trial and therefore could not imagine it having been granted research ethics committee approval. C also mentioned that the study was funded using non-peer reviewed, government funds. Another referee (D) was consulted, who again did not want his/her identity to be revealed to the authors, but reiterated C’s concerns. The paper was rejected on methodological grounds, but with an offer to see if the authors could address the criticisms. The authors revised and resubmitted the paper, which was sent to the more critical referee (B). His view was that the authors had done little to improve it. Another referee (E) was consulted, who was also sent the comments from C and D. E was happy to take part in open peer review, and concluded that the trial had little biological justification;was poorly conducted and reported; and that it was of such poor quality that the research ethics committees who approved it must be informed. The editors rejected the paper and wrote to the two research ethics committees who approved the study, enclosing B and E’s signed reports (with their permission). The authors were informed, and wrote a letter expressing their outrage that the journal had contacted the research ethics committees. It proved difficult to identify contact details for the research ethics committees that approved the intervention part of the study. Should the editors do more? Should the authors be asked to provide full details of their research ethics committees now and in the future?
_ The authors should have been contacted first and asked to respond to the doubts raised before the editor went to the research ethics committees. _ Write to the authors’ institution to check that the research ethics committee approval process had been correctly undertaken. _ Research ethics committee approval of potentially unethical research implicates the employer, so it would have been difficult to approach the employer first with these concerns. _ Open peer review policy needs to be explicit: it is open at all times, except in cases of suspected misconduct. _ Ask the authors to respond to doubts about the paper. (The editors had gone back to the ethics committees and wanted to re-review the articles. Did they have a duty of confidentiality to the author?) _ Ideally, the ethics committee should contact the authors directly. If the authors refuse to send the articles then public interest in the ethics committees being able to review the work would justify a breach in editorauthor confidentiality. But the editor should inform the author of any such action. _ The willingness of editors to breach editor-author confidentiality, where public interest justifies a breach, should be made explicit. _ Authors may not be aware of this fact and some rely on a lack of communication between journals to perpetrate duplicate submission and publication. _ It is usually the case that where the author is open about papers and their submission to another journal, that there are legitimate reasons to send the other papers elsewhere and sufficient differences in the papers to justify separate publication. _ In North America there was a fear of litigation arising out of such cases, but following the Tarasoff case, where it was held that the duty to warn and protect identifiable third party interests overrides a duty of confidentiality, a breach of confidentiality can be justified. In Belgium the duty of confidentiality is absolute, but there is no EU law on the issue.
A reviewer has written to complain that a review he sent to us on which he wrote “In confidence—not for transmission to author” was transmitted in part to the author. He had made some rather derogatory remarks which had been edited out by the editor before he had sent back the comments to the author. The review that remained was critical but unremarkable.
(1) Is it acceptable for reviewers to send comments to editors that the reviewer is not willing to allow the editor to pass on to the author? Isn’t there something unscientific and indeed unjust about the editor having access to comments that are denied to the author?
(2) If editors are sent comments by reviewers that are marked confidential, are they obliged to respect that confidentiality?
(3) Should editors make entirely clear whether they want comments that can be passed directly to authors, comments that are only for them or a combination of the two?
The answers to questions (1) and (2) are in (3). The journal must be upfront with its policy from the beginning. In this case it has not been and the problem is therefore of its own making.