An Analysis of Peer Review Cases Brought to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) From 1997 to 2016

Elizabeth C. Moylan,1 Virginia Barbour,2 Linda Gough,3 Charon A. Pierson,4 Deborah Poff,5 Natalie Ridgeway,3 Michael J. Wise,6 Adrian Ziderman7


The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) holds a quarterly forum where editors from its membership can raise cases in publication ethics for discussion and advice. All of the forum cases from 1997 onwards have been entered into a searchable database. This database contains over 500 cases together with the advice given by COPE. More recent cases also include follow-up information and outcomes, providing a valuable resource for users. Our aim was to analyse the cases that are related to peer review in the context of the other categories of cases brought to COPE. This work builds on the COPE Case Taxonomy, specifically reporting on trends within peer review to inform future guidance.


Overall, 43 cases from the “peer review” classification category from 1997 to 2016 were suitable for further analysis. The specific issue within peer review was noted, together with the date the specific issue arose and who was responsible at that point (author, peer reviewer, editor). The broad subject area of the journal, as well as the recommendation for the journal, was also recorded.


The number of cases brought to COPE that involve peer review have declined in recent years, as have all other previously high-frequency categories apart from cases relating to authorship, which remain consistently high. Within the peer review cases, 29 occurred in science disciplines and 3 occurred in the arts and social sciences. In 11 cases the subject area was not known. Most issues arose during the peer review process (32 cases) with breaches in confidentiality and concerns about the editorial process being the most common reasons why cases are brought to COPE. However, in recent years more complex issues relating to bias in peer review and compromised peer review (due to fraud) have occurred. Although each case has unique outcomes and specific advice, a common finding was the recommendation to revise journal guidelines and policy (Table).


The decline in incidence of cases brought to COPE in previously high-frequency categories (except for authorship) may reflect the use of the COPE cases database which facilitates users learning from related cases. It may also reflect a growing awareness of relevant COPE guidance in this area (eg, ethical guidelines for peer reviewers). However, there is potential for further guidance in peer review, particularly with respect to maintaining confidentiality and best practice in editorial processes, as well as for handling cases involving more than one journal.

1BioMed Central, London, UK, elizabeth.moylan@biomedcentral.com; 2Queensland University of Technology, Queensland, Australia; 3COPE, UK; 4American Association of Nurse Practitioners; 5Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences, British Columbia, Canada; 6University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia; 7Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel

Conflict of Interest Disclosures:

Dr Moylan is a COPE council member (unpaid) and senior editor (research integrity) at BioMed Central. She is an editorial board member for Research Integrity and Peer Review and a member of the advisory board for EnTIRE (an EU funded proposal for mapping the research ethics and research integrity framework). Dr Barbour is the immediate past chair of COPE (unpaid). She is also a member of the Peer Review Congress Advisory Board but was not involved in the review or decision of this abstract. Ms Gough is COPE’s administrator and is a paid employee of COPE. Dr Pierson is secretary and interim treasurer of COPE (unpaid), as well as the editor in chief for the Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (paid position by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners). Dr Poff is vice-chair and chair elect of COPE (unpaid). She is the cofounder and editor of the Journal of Business Ethics and editor in chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics, as well as the the editor of Business Ethics in Canada and the section editor on Business and Economic Ethics of Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics. Ms Ridgeway is COPE’s executive officer and is a paid employee of COPE. Dr Wise is a COPE council member (unpaid). He receives research support from Australian governmental bodies and charitable trusts. The Immunisation Alliance of Western Australia (of which he is a member) has received donations and/or funding from both individuals, the Government of Western Australia and from companies including GlaxoSmithKline, CSL, and Sanofi Pasteur. Dr Ziderman is a trustee of COPE (unpaid). He is editor in chief of International Journal of Manpower, and president of the International Network of Business Management Journals. No other conflicts are reported.