Should The BMJ silence authors who were abused by a reviewer?

Man Hand writing Transparency with marker on transparent wipe board.The BMJ should not break its implied contract with authors about providing them with an open review process.

Editors should not attempt to intimidate authors into silence when they are abused and bullied by a reviewer and inclined to speak out.

The BMJ should apologize to the scientific and medical communities and to some authors on behalf of one of its editors, Navjoyt Ladher, who has done just that.

The BMJ: Way ahead of the game

In so many ways, The BMJ is so far ahead of other journals in efforts to improve the trustworthiness of the scientific literature.

These efforts must start with improving the trustworthiness and transparency of the scientific publishing process. Time and time again, The BMJ editors have implemented changes that were only later and inconsistently adopted by other journals.

The BMJ is a prestigious, publishing outlet with a high impact factor. But some authors will submit their manuscripts because of the values and open practices that The BMJ espouses.

The BMJ sets high standards for itself in scientific publishing. When it fails to live up to those standards – and I’m going to be talking about a situation in which the Journal has miserably failed – it represents a failure for all of publishing.

Enter Reviewer 2

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which you are among a group of authors who chose to submit to The BMJ because you believed what The BMJ has repeatedly said about open peer review. You assumed its statements represent a kind of contract with no small print or hidden exceptions.

Then you get back a review written by a possibly drunk and certainly half crazed Reviewer 2.

Reviewer 2 points out that some of the authors have female-sounding names. He expresses doubt that they are in fact biological females and wonders if anyone is ever looked into their tennis shorts to confirm their equipment. Or maybe a more Trumpian “Has anyone ever grabbed them by the crotch?”

Really? That’s an absurd example, even when posed hypothetically.

Well, I wish I could be presenting what Reviewer 2 actually put into his review, but I’m respecting the author believing that she has been muzzled by The BMJ. In the spirit of The Onion, my satirical example matches reality, in this case, in its inappropriateness, assaultive on the dignity of the authors, and its irrelevance to the proper review of the manuscript. Please, The BMJ correct me if I have gone over the top.

Reviewer 2 expresses doubt whether there is any scientific contribution to the manuscript, although he recommends publishing it.

He makes clear his motivation for this recommendation: if the authors are not properly humiliated, “I will write in and tell the authors that they should know better and I think I would end with a ‘Shame on you’.”

[No, I kid you not. I didn’t have to make up statement.]

As required by The BMJ, Reviewer 2 signed his review. If you look him up in Google Scholar, you see that he has decades of publications and collaborations that would indicate a serious intellectual and personal conflict of interest, given the topic of the manuscript and the position the authors take. That should not necessarily disqualify him, but it should be taken into account by the editors.

Now, imagine this review is sent to you and your co-authors with a cover letter from The BMJ that states:

“We note that the reviewers were more positive than the editors were about your paper, but ultimately did not persuade us that we should publish it.”

[Nope, I didn’t make that up, either.]

Personally I would consider that a mindf*ck, given that the editor’s decision letter compounded abuse that was just been heaped on the authors by the reviewer. The statement from the editor invalidated the authors’ sense of indignation.

But the statement by the editor is followed up with her unexpected silencing of the authors, a clear attempt to intimidate them from speaking to anyone further about what has been done to them.

Although The BMJ has an open peer review process, in which authors know who the peer reviewers were, we expect that you will keep the identity and comments of the peer reviewers for this paper confidential. You may, however, share the peer review comments in confidence (though not the names of the peer reviewers) with other journals to which you submit the paper. If you have any complaints about the peer review process or the conduct of the peer reviewers, please contact the editor who handled your paper. Please do not contact the peer reviewers directly.

Authors sharing their peer reviews with others: An idea whose time has come

 Regardless of the outcome of the review of their manuscripts, I think many will agree with me that authors should be free to disseminate reviews. If the review was obtained with the reviewer believing that comments would be anonymized or her/his identity kept confidential, the authors should consider not naming names. But there is every indication that the reviewer in this instance was forewarned  and none that he could submit a review without his identify being reviewed.

Increasingly authors are taking to social media with reviews they received. It’s an important step to accelerate the establishment of open review processes required for trustworthy science. By getting bad reviewer behaviour and author victimization out of the darkened alleys of anonymous peer review, sharing reviews forces reviewers and journals to be more responsible.

So many acts of abuse are left secret when manuscripts are rejected and authors are so ashamed that they don’t report the abuse or even resubmit their manuscript elsewhere.

Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped

Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped is a Public Facebook page that has attracted almost 10,000 followers. Lots of authors, many, but not all early career researchers, go there and complain about the treatment that they have received from Reviewer 2.

I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. But after some postings I start on this Facebook page, I asked a well published lawyer and bioethicist whether peer reviews were confidential.

The lawyer stated that confidentiality must be a negotiated contract, not something suddenly imposed by one party.

The lawyer suggested that in the absence of an explicit contract, reviews were not confidential in terms of how authors dealt with them, including choosing to distribute them.

Finally, he stated it was too late for editors to announce the confidentiality of reviews and communications where they are providing reviews. The authors have not made a contract and are not bound by this agreement.

I examined The BMJ’s public statements about open peer review and found them just as praiseworthy as I remembered them. The advice to authors states:

Peer review process

Open peer review

We ask reviewers to sign their reports and declare any competing interests on any manuscripts we send them. Reviewers advise the editors, who make the final decision (aided by an editorial manuscript committee meeting for some articles, including original research).

For research papers, The BMJ has fully open peer review. This means that every accepted research paper submitted from September 2014 onwards will have its prepublication history posted alongside it on bmj.com.

This prepublication history comprises all previous versions of the manuscript, the study protocol (submitting the protocol is mandatory for all clinical trials and encouraged for all other studies at The BMJ), the report from the manuscript committee meeting, the reviewers’ signed comments, and the authors’ responses to all the comments from reviewers and editors (read more in this editorial).

It would be false advertising and an abridging of the rights granted to these authors if The BMJ accepted their manuscript for review and possible publication and did not live up to this agreement. Of course, the BMJ can desk reject manuscripts without review, but if manuscripts go out for review, it is my opinion that these are the terms that authors should expect.

There is no mention of authors’ need to keep their reviews confidential.

A click on the link provided in these instructions to authors takes me to a praiseworthy editorial by then Deputy Editor Trish Groves and Elizabeth Loder, Acting Head of Research.

Prepublication histories and open peer review at The BMJ BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 03 September 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g5394

 Some excerpts:

We will publish peer reviews and authors’ responses for all research articles.

Over the past 15 years peer reviewers for The BMJ have shown, by signing their reviews and declaring to authors and editors any relevant competing interests, that they are unafraid of transparent scientific discourse. Now we are opening up our process to make our reviewers’ role as authors’ critical friends visible to all.

From this autumn on thebmj.com all research articles, and certain scholarly articles in The BMJ’s Analysis section, will have an article tab marked “Reviews.” Clicking on this will open the article’s prepublication history, comprising all signed reviews (including those by statisticians and patient peer reviewers), previous versions of the article, the study protocol for any clinical trial, the report from The BMJ’s manuscript committee meeting, and the authors’ responses to the editors’ and reviewers’ comments. As now, reviewers will not be able to make private comments to editors, except in the rare case when a reviewer wants to express concerns about the scientific integrity of the work (www.bmj.com/about-bmj/resources-reviewers/guidance-peer-reviewers).

Such open peer review should increase the accountability of reviewers and editors, at least to some extent. Importantly, it will also give due credit and prominence to the vital work of peer reviewers. At present, peer review activities are under-recognised in the academic community. We hope that reviewers will find this increased visibility helpful when demonstrating the extent and impact of their academic work and that they and others will cite and share their reviews as a learning resource.

Greater accountability and transparency are clearly laudable goals.1 2 3 But is there a downside to open peer review? Does it, for instance, provide “more scope for power relationships to favour ‘the great and the good,’” as Karim Khan, editor of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, feared?4 Or might it produce a flurry of spurious criticism motivated by commercial interest, academic jealousy, or pettiness? Such problems may occur, but we think the good consequences of more open editorial and peer review practices will outweigh any harms. One beneficial result may be that access to prepublication histories will encourage readers and other interested parties to participate in the self correction processes that are vital to the credibility of medical research.

Posting prepublication histories is another part—but not the conclusion—of a process aimed at restoring trust in the clinical research enterprise. We will closely monitor the effects of our new, more open review and editorial processes and refine or modify them as needed. We invite comments and suggestions from our readers.

I could not have said this better than what is in the editorial.

I encourage readers to take The BMJ up on its invitation. I encourage readers to comment on what has occurred with these authors.

If The BMJ feels I have misrepresented what has occurred with my necessarily hypothetical example, I encourage them to release the review and the editor’s cover letter, or at least stop intimidating authors from doing so themselves.