Conflict of interest in manuscript peer-review: Expert opinions

Discussion of a recent court case concerning a peer reviewer who failed to disclose a conflict of interest has broader application.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has defined the need for authors to declare any potential conflicts of interest in review of the manuscript.

 Recently, Retraction Watch discussed a court case in which one issue was the failure of a reviewer to declare a conflict of interest. Retraction Watch interviewed that peer reviewer and obtained some expert opinions.

bruberg

Kjell Gundro Brurberg, the author accused of misconduct by the Editor of Journal of Health Psychlogy when he nominated reviewers with obvious conflicts of interest.

These opinions are directly relevant to a decision by the Editor of Journal of Health Psychology to reject an appeal of a previous negative decision about manuscript submitted to be part of the Special Issue on PACEgate. The author, Kjell Gundro Brurberg was given an unusual opportunity to nominate additional reviewers, but with the provision that the author ensure reviewers not have a conflict of interest. Nomination of three reviewers with blatant conflicts of interest led to the withdrawal of the opportunity for reconsideration and charges by the editor of authorial misconduct.

The issue of author conflict of interest is also relevant to the controversial Cochrane Review, which Brurberg  co-authored  with others associated with the PACE trial.

Committee on Publication Ethics: Basic Principles

The Retraction Watch article started with a link to the basic principles for reviewers of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which are clearly spelled out at COPE’s website.

cope basic principles

The legal case in whicn reviewer conflict of interest comes up.

Retraction Watch then summarized a case [A fascinating read, in itself]

Bryan Hardin testified that he was a peer reviewer on a 2016 paper in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, which found that asbestos does not increase the risk of cancer. In the deposition, Hardin—who works at the consulting firm Veritox—also said that he has testified in asbestos litigation on behalf of automakers, such as Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, but said he had not disclosed these relationships to the journal.

Last year, the first author of the 2016 review withdrew a paper from another journal (by the same publisher) which concluded asbestos roofing products are safe, following several criticisms — including not disclosing the approving editor’s ties to the asbestos industry. In this latest case, the journal told us it believes the review process for the paper was up to snuff, but two outside experts we consulted said they believed Hardin’s relationships — and failure to disclose them — should give the journal pause.

After obtaining a transcript of the case, Retraction Watch interviewed the author and inquired whether he had disclosed a conflict of interest

“No. If — if that’s a new expectation, I’m not aware that as a peer reviewer you’re supposed to disclose that sort of thing, but I — I don’t recall that I did.”

The author further said:

“I have been a peer reviewer on more than one asbestos-related paper” and “I have been retained by ‘several’ companies involved in asbestos litigation.”

Expert opinon

In the article Retraction Watch raised the issue of whether the author’s  ties to the asbestos industry be considered a conflict of interest. An opinion was obtained from Elizabeth Wager, a member of the board of directors of The Center For Scientific Integrity, our parent non-profit organization:

“I’d definitely regard giving expert testimony as a conflict of interest that should be declared by a potential reviewer (or an author). This is also in line with the views of many journals, such as PLOS which specifically notes that “acting as an expert witness” constitutes a non-financial competing interest. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not you were paid for such services, just testifying suggests a strong allegiance or interest which editors deserve to know about.”

A further opinion was obtained by Retraction Watch from Trudo Lemmens, a professor of Law & Bioethics at the University of Toronto in Canada who was not involved in this case.

“In my opinion, a peer reviewer who has as an expert been working for a particular industry on a specific issue should at least disclose to the journal his ties to the industry whose interests can be affected by the publication of a paper on that topic.  And journal editors should exclude such peer reviewers from reviewing a paper on that or a related topic, or at least ensure that there are several other more independent reviews of the paper. If for one reason or another they think it is important to get a review by an expert with such a conflict of interest, they should assess that review much more critically. They should then also provide an opportunity to the authors to respond to the peer-review before making a publication decision.”

Lemmens added:

But the more cautious approach would be to exclude reviewers with such a clear COI.

Retraction Watch continued  the discussion with a further quote from Wager:

It’s up to the editor to decide whether a conflict of interest is so great as to disqualify the reviewer, but, whatever the editor decides, s/he obviously needs to be made aware of it by the invited reviewer…If a reviewer’s failure to disclose a relevant interest comes to light after publication the journal should look at the review comments again.

In the thread of comments on the Retraction Watch article

Commentor Richard David Feinman noted:

The problem assumes greater importance when it comes to competing theories in medicine and especially, my own area, medical nutrition. A editor is supposed to recognize a controversial subject and appoint reviewers from both sides of the controversy. Failure to do so constitutes de facto (or intentional) bias. The perfunctory, often inappropriate — take what you can get when you get people to work for you for nothing — guarantees that the party line will be heard and there will be little input from minority opinions.

And, if you do object, you are — if you are lucky — told to submit a letter to the editor. If they take it — no guarantee of publication — the original author has the last word and it is, in any case, like an objection in a court of law: even if sustained, the damage has been done.