Is this common: editors rewriting referees reports?

I just heard of this secondhand, and so I don’t have details of the journal, and even if I did it’s not my place to disclose them, but this bothers me. I am seeking comment:

A friend refereed a paper by a newly minted PhD, who she happened to recognise the work of, although it was blinded, since she knew the lab in which the topic was being researched. She reviewed it honestly and recommended publication with revisions. This is not uncommon. It’s hard in a small field to enforce total anonymity in reviewing. I can occasionally recognise the authorship of papers I review and sometime the reviewers of my papers.

She received a note from the author later to say that the paper had been rejected by the two reviewers, and sent the reviews to her. She found that her own review had been completely rewritten by the editor, and was now a damning attack upon it!

Now editors traditionally have a kind of absolute monarchical power over their journal, and they can reject a paper recommended by the reviewers as they like. They don’t need to rewrite the reviews to do that. I have never heard of reviews being rewritten. Has anyone? And can they give a justification?

18 Comments

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18 Responses to Is this common: editors rewriting referees reports?

  1. ckc (not kc)

    …never seen or heard of anything like this. The peer review process has enough inherent problems without adding this kind of thing. The reviewer should contact the journal with copies before and after and have the editor removed.

  2. John Harshman

    I’ve never heard of this. But how exactly would you know, absent the unusual conditions you describe? It could conceivably go on all the time. One would hope not. It’s seriously unethical, subverts peer review completely, and should be grounds for dismissal, public shaming, and whatever other sanctions one can think of.

    So what should happen here? I hope your friend pursues the matter with the journal. This is a very nasty abuse of editorial authority and shouldn’t go unpunished.

    • Therein lies the problem. Unless the correspondence of the journal is made available, we cannot hope to know whether such things occur regularly. Since the editor is the one keeping the correspondence, even the paper trail cannot be uncovered if they choose to be dishonest.

      I think this is a case for open review. I personally take steps not to be anonymous in my reviews, if there’s a way to flag my identity.

      • Actually in my field of molecular genetics, I receive the editors decision letter and a copy of all the reviews. I expect this practice is standard in most of the biological science journals. It’s great from a reviewer standpoint because you can see what the other reviewers thought. It’s an editors job to make a decision, I have often told an author that aspects of a review were not necessary to address (additional experiments that are beyond the scope of the study). If an editor din’t want the paper, she should not have sent it out for review.
        This should be a clear case of termination in my opinion.

  3. Argon

    Never heard of such a thing. One thing to add… My post-doctoral advisor used to sign the reviews if they were negative. That way the author could call if they wanted to discuss the bad review.

  4. Jeffrey Shallit

    Editors might occasionally rewrite reports to make minor changes, such as phrases that inadvertently give away the author’s identity, or to delete attacks that are too personal, etc. But the example you describe is certainly a breach of ethics, and should be reported.

    • ckc (not kc)

      I would be reluctant to edit reviews in any way if I were an editor (perhaps return them to the reviewer for “correction”). But perhaps that’s just me.

  5. RBH

    What Jeffrey said, though to whom it should be reported isn’t clear to me, not knowing the particulars of the journal.

  6. FF

    Many journals send reviewers notification of the editorial decision and a copy of all the reviews received. I’ve always thought this was just a courtsey, but it obviously adds transparency to the process too. Perhaps it should be a uniform policy of all refereed journals? Seems like a simple way to ensure this doesn’t happen.

  7. Physicalist

    WTF? No, that’s not cricket.

  8. I’ve never had it happen to any on my reviews, and in the journals I review for, the reviewers get to see their and other reviewers comments as passed to the authors. Neither have I heard it happening to anyone else. While I can imagine light editing to remove material that would identify the reviewer, this degree of editing is a gross ethical breach IMHO.

  9. David Duffy

    I’ve never heard of such a thing, and think it is obviously dishonest, but am not necessarily surprised. I would expect all journal to be like Nature:

    As a matter of policy, we do not suppress reviewers’ reports; any comments that were intended for the authors are transmitted, regardless of what we may think of the content. On rare occasions, we may edit a report to remove offensive language or comments that reveal confidential information about other matters.

  10. Miles R.

    In a word (though I have to go to German for it): unerhört!

  11. As this is plagiarism and a sort of unauthorized ‘retraction’ on the side of the rewriting editor, I’d suggest sending both the original and rewritten reviews to retraction watch and see what they can investigate.

  12. john harshman

    Might I also say that I would consider this adequate warrant for making the reviews (both versions) public, as well as the name of the journal and the editor involved? There is no need to be coy; in fact there are good reasons for full exposure.

  13. Jeb

    “Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.”

    I suppose that’s why its a shrewd move to pick on someone less well established than yourself, as it’s unfortunately often the case that it’s not the wrongdoer who ends up with problems and if you are just starting out and not fully established the simple fact is you may have no choice other than to stay quite and ensure nothing becomes public.

    I hope this does not involve a gender issue as well.

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