In this article, we highlight an interesting ethics dilemma from the searchable cases database operated by COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics). In 2008, all Elsevier journals were enrolled in COPE so editors would have an additional resource when faced with research misconduct or complex ethics cases. The cases database contains details of, and advice given on, more than 500 cases and is just one of the many valuable services COPE offers.
This particular issue had a big impact on editors involved. Simply click on the image at the end of the article to find out what the COPE Forum advised. We also welcome your thoughts on this case and you can share them in the comments section below.
While COPE is primarily a forum for editors and publishers, it has also developed a series of useful ethics guidelines for reviewers.
Case number 16-03 (anonymized)
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”.
Questions 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?