Publishing Ethics

A peer reviewer breaks the rules

Online posting of confidential draft by peer reviewer

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In this new regular feature, we will highlight in each Editors' Update edition an ethics dilemma featured in 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 alternative information resource when faced with research misconduct. The cases database contains details of, and advice given on, more than 500 cases and is just one of the many services COPE offers.

copeThis issue we highlight the online posting of a confidential draft research article by a peer reviewer. Simply click on the link at the end of the article to find out what the COPE Council advised.

Case number 13-15 (anonymized)

Shortly before publication, I received an email from the authors of a systematic review telling me that a version of the paper as first submitted to the journal for peer review had appeared on the website of a campaign group based in the USA. It was clear that the version of the document posted on the website was the same as the version supplied to the journal's peer reviewers. Further investigation showed that one of the three peer reviewers (reviewer A) who initially advised on the paper is also named as a member of the board of directors of the campaign group. The journal operates an anonymous peer review system.

I emailed all three peer reviewers asking for an explanation as to how the confidential draft appeared on the website. Reviewers B and C replied within a few hours, disclaiming all knowledge, as I expected. Reviewer A has failed to reply. I also emailed the senior directors of the campaign group, asking them to remove the confidential draft from their website, and inviting them to replace it with the definitive paper, which had in the meantime been published. They did not reply. The directors have since been sent a letter from our publisher's lawyers asking for the confidential document to be removed—with reviewer A also sent a copy—on the grounds of breech of copyright. They have not replied. The lawyers are continuing to pursue legal avenues for getting the draft removed from the website.

In normal circumstances, I would contact reviewer A's institution and request an investigation. However, reviewer A is unaffiliated, so I cannot follow this course. On our manuscript tracking database, we have removed reviewer A's role as a peer reviewer, with a note explaining the circumstances, so that he should not be used as a peer reviewer again. I have received frequent emails from the lead author of the paper, asking for a resolution of the matter. The author has requested that I give her the name of reviewer A, so that she can ask that he is excluded from peer reviewing her papers in the future. I have declined to do this on the grounds that it would be a further breach of confidentiality.

Question for the COPE Forum

Is there any more that can be done to obtain an explanation from reviewer A, or to satisfy the authors that we have investigated the matter to the limits of the journal's powers?

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Archived comments

Robin Mockett says: September 16, 2014 at 6:10 pm
Perhaps journals should modify their guidelines to reviewers. Inform them that anonymity will be guarded only if there is no egregious violation of their contractual obligations, such as not using confidential information for personal gain. With that policy in place, the journal could identify the reviewer to the author. The author could pursue legal action against the reviewer, and the reviewer would have less basis for action against the journal.

Biju Vasudevan Pillai says: September 18, 2014 at 12:30 pm
As it has become difficult to reach the referee, one can't understand his/her intention when posted the review version of the manuscript. I hope it is on healthy grounds in the reviewer's mind. One thing I like to know about this issue is whether or not the manuscript was posted in full by including the authorship. Although the peer review compliance is infringed, it seems to me that the reviewer mightn't have sufficient details about the peer review policy. Despite the details in previous discussions, what surprises me is the editors comment that the referee does have an academic affiliation. Such comment will certainly cultivate concerns about the reputation of the journal. We, editors, hold the responsibility of peer review by recruiting reputed referees. Nonetheless, finding expert referees becomes more and more tedious in this busy world.

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