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Is it ever ok for editors to alter peer review reports?

Do journal editors faithfully pass on peer review comments to the authors? Not always, according to a recent survey which revealed that 91% of journal editors would edit a peer review report and 8% would change the reviewer’s overall recommendation without their permission. These figures may be even higher in reality, considering there may be stigma associated with admitting to these practices.

Professor Fidler started the survey with colleagues after finding out that one of her peer review reports was altered by a journal editor without her knowledge or consent, to such an extent that it changed her recommendation for the paper. Based on this experience, Professor Fidler and Dr Hoekstra (the recipient of her altered report) wanted to understand the scope of this issue. Together with colleagues, they surveyed editors at high impact journals across medicine, psychology, economics, ecology and physics about many aspects of their peer review system, including altering peer reviewers’ reports, receiving responses from 322 individuals.

91% of journal editors would edit a peer review report and 8% would change the reviewer’s overall recommendation without their permission.

Per the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)’s ethical guidelines for peer reviewers, journals have a responsibility to provide transparent policies for peer review and facilitate and mediate the peer review process. Many journals share review reports and the editorial decision with reviewers, allowing them to see how their feedback was communicated to authors. However, around a fifth of the editors surveyed revealed their journals do not do this.

Some would argue that the fairest way to manage the issue is to prevent editing of a report unless the reviewer gives permission, although exceptions might be needed for hostile reviews that would be detrimental to the authors or their future work. However, the survey showed only ~80% of editors would alter a review if it contained offensive language or inappropriate comments. An alternative solution would be to allow reviewers to edit inappropriate feedback themselves – but how would journals with rapid turnaround times handle this extra step? Others have questioned whether reviewers who have made unprofessional comments should be allowed another chance.

COPE’s current guidelines set out the standards that all peer reviewers should adhere to, and they are also developing guidance surrounding the ethics of altering peer reviewers’ comments. We look forward to following future developments in this area.

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Summary by Rachel Hubbard MSc, CMPP from Aspire Scientific

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With thanks to our sponsor, Aspire Scientific Ltd


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