An academic has called for authors to have the right to see everything written about them in referees’ reports after discovering that positive comments made about a rejected manuscript had been removed.
Mark Harvey, director of the Centre for Research in Economic Sociology and Innovation at the University of Essex, submitted a paper to the Routledge journal Economy and Society last year. It was rejected after being reviewed by five referees, some of whom had been suggested by Professor Harvey.
But by comparing the version of the reviewers’ comments he received with those submitted by two of his recommended referees, he found that several positive comments about his paper had been removed.
Professor Harvey told Times Higher Education he feared that the comments may have been removed to justify the rejection. He added that the form for referees’ comments used by Economy and Society did not suggest that reports could be edited before being shown to authors.
According to Professor Harvey, the journal’s managing editor, Fran Tonkiss, reader in sociology at the London School of Economics, told him that only direct recommendations for publication had been excised from the reports. However, Professor Harvey disputed this and noted that a recommendation against publication in one report remained uncut.
He said Dr Tonkiss had told him that the journal would alter the wording of its referees’ reporting form to indicate that they could be edited. But Professor Harvey argued that this would merely give editors licence to continue unfairly editing reports. He said that “clear rules” should be laid down stating explicitly that authors should be shown the full version of the reports.
All the colleagues with whom he and one of the referees of his paper - Norman Geras, professor emeritus in politics at the University of Manchester - discussed the case had expressed “surprise and shock” at Economy and Society’s behaviour, Professor Harvey said.
Dr Tonkiss could not be contacted for comment. A Routledge spokeswoman said that information on editorial decisions provided to authors by Economy and Society “combines the feedback from referee reports, board members and the editor”.
Liz Wager, a publication consultant and former chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics, said it was not uncommon for referees’ reports to be edited, and most editors agreed that “offensive, ad hominem attacks” should be cut.
But in her view, “if the editor disagrees with the reviewer - especially over recommendations about whether to publish or not - then it is up to the editor to explain this to the author”.
Irene Hames, an editorial consultant and a Cope council member, agreed. She said reports could also be edited to tidy up ambiguous language or to remove explicitly confidential material. However, “journals shouldn’t use selective editing of reviewer reports to help them justify or be a better fit for a decision”.
“Decision-making should be transparent,” she added.