Peer-review of manuscripts with emotionally charged topics. A case study of a controversial issue of bicycle helmets

This text is an addition to my paper “Nonfinancial conflict of interest in peer-review: some notes for discussion” published in Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance. While the paper was written in a neutral way, here I provide more information about how perceived pro-helmets submissions are treated in journals. I describe the events surrounding 5 of my submissions to 4 different journals.

Case 1. Together with one colleague I submitted a critical commentary on a highly publicized paper to the same journal where this paper had been published. The editor invited three reviews: two from independent researchers and one from the authors of the target paper. This was against the journal’s policy, which stated at the time that the editor might invite the authors of the target paper for comments and reply upon acceptance of a commentary. The editor rejected our paper although two independent reviewers were positive about it. The authors of the target article in their “peer review” questioned our motivation for writing our commentary.

We appealed to the editor on the basis of (i) a breach of the journal policy and (ii) a biased review from the reviewers who had serious conflict of interest. The editor accepted our appeal, ignored the review of the authors of the target paper, allowed us to revise the paper according to suggestions provided by two other reviewers, and the paper was eventually published. Unlike the actions of the authors of the target article who questioned our motivation for writing the commentary, the editor’s actions are to be praised as they admitted the initial mistake and responsibly took a corrective measure.

Case 2. I and three of my colleagues wrote a commentary (Radun et al., 2019) about a widely quoted statistic regarding the health benefits of cycling (BMA, 1992; Hillman 1992, 1993) that we believed is misleading. Our review of the source material identified no supporting data or analysis for this statistic. The main reason for submitting our commentary was the fact that these three publications authored by one author had been influential for almost 30 years despite the absence of data. The disputed statistics are often quoted as a basis for opposing helmet promotion and legislation (Radun, 2021).

We submitted the article to a journal that uses double-blind reviews. The EiC received comments from two reviewers and sent a standard email to the corresponding author: “In the event that I need to seek the opinion of an additional reviewer, you may see the status of your manuscript revert briefly from ‘Ready for Decision’ to ‘Under Review.’” The EiC then sought a third review. After receiving comments from the additional reviewer, the editor rejected the paper. We then discovered the additional reviewer was also a reviewer on the earlier version submitted to another journal. This reviewer informed the editor of JTH that he/she had reviewed the ‘same’ paper previously and offered to send the same review. The editor agreed. That is, although the reviewer was asked to comment on a revised version, the editor allowed the reviewer to comment on a previous version submitted to a different journal. Furthermore, that journal uses “single blind,” so our identities were known to Reviewer 3 before he/she submitted their review. This means the editor accepted the review knowingly acting against the journal’s double-blind policy.

We appealed to the editor on the basis of (i) a breach of the journal double-blind policy, (ii) a biased review in which the reviewer questioned our motivation to write the article we wrote, and (iii) the review of Reviewer 3 was identical although we had revised our paper before submitting it to the new journal. The editor rejected our appeal by saying the third reviewer “made absolutely no difference in practice as I was about to reject the manuscript anyway on the basis of the first two reviews.” This case raises several important questions.

Should one ask for a third, usually a decisive, review if an editorial decision has already been made? Is it ethical to waste the reviewer’s time (even though he/she only copy/pastes an old review) if a decision on the paper has already been made? Is it ethical to keep a paper for a further month if a decision has already been made? Should editors accept a peer review written on an earlier version of the manuscript and not on the submitted version?

Case 3. The same editor (Case 2) latter published an editorial in which they stated that “(t)hose who believe that the evidence is convincing that helmets are beneficial and that legislation is not detrimental…were not willing to submit an article to us” (Mindell, 2019, p. 5).

This statement is incorrect because in addition to the mentioned paper (Case 2) this editor had rejected another paper of ours that also deals with bicycle helmets. We submitted a letter to the editor in direct response to the editor’s editorial by explaining what happens when such researchers submit a paper to their journal. We explained how such papers receive unfair treatment in their journal (Case 2). We also pointed out that the EiC and several other editorial board members belong to Transport and Health Study Group (THSG) where one of the aims is “To promote a more balanced approach to cycle safety and oppose cycle helmet legislation.” [our emphasis]. We concluded that it is unacceptable for editors to knowingly violate their privacy rules, nor should it be permissible to invite a review when an editor has already made a decision.

The new EiC, who also belongs to THSG as the former EiC, rejected our letter to the editor because “we feel the letter is not within the scope of the journal.” I appealed to the EiC, who rejected the appeal. I find it disappointing that a direct response to the incorrect information (i.e., “were not willing to submit an article to us”) published in an editorial is considered to be beyond the scope of the journal.

The EiC defended the actions of the former EiC (Case 2) by saying “it is exceedingly difficult to guarantee total author anonymity’ for a variety of reasons;” however, in our case the situation could not have been simpler. The editor knowingly violated the journal’s privacy rules. There are no attenuating circumstances in this case.

The EiC also wrote that “On occasion we ask for more than 2 reviews, especially if the reviews contradict one another… .” When that happens, as probably occurred in our case, the review submitted by an additional reviewer plays a decisive role. Thus, it is of utmost importance that the journal privacy rules are respected in such a situation and are not knowingly violated. Furthermore, the former EiC should not have accepted a peer review submitted on an earlier version of our manuscript.

I have submitted a formal complaint to the publisher, but despite many attempts by a person responsible for the journal and my repeated reminders, the publisher has failed to respond to the formal complaint. The case is closed as far as I and the responsible person for the journal are concerned.

Case 4. We submitted the same paper about uncritical citations of an alleged statistic to another journal. In the once again revised version, we provided several examples including a blog written on the journal’s webpage. The journal is very influential and the blog is read by millions.

The journal invited two reviewers, one of them being the author of that blog. The author is not a researcher and has only one “publication” (i.e., a blog), and is the founder of a cycling advocacy group which holds views that are not supported by research. For example, the group states that there is evidence that wearing a helmet increases the risk of being involved in an accident and that mandatory helmet laws lead to less cycling and eventually increase morbidity from inactivity. Both assertions have been challenged and remain unproven (Esmaeilikia et al., 2019; Høye, 2018b).

We appealed to the associate editor on the basis of (i) the reviewer has a serious conflict of interest and (ii) because the reviewer used the review to justify uncritical citations of the alleged statistics. Our appeal was rejected and the committee explicitly stated they did not agree that the reviewer has a serious conflict of interest. No further appeals were allowed. Nevertheless, we wrote a formal complaint to the EiC in which, among other things, we wrote “According to one of COPE documents, ‘For example, if a researcher has built a career on a particular view and is ‘famous’ for holding that view, that could be a conflict of interest.’ We contend that the founder of an advocacy group whose publication we criticize has a serious conflict of interest. It seems reasonable to expect bias when a reviewer has an opportunity to prevent the publication of a paper that exposes that reviewer’s careless citation of an alleged finding from a secondary source.” We received no reply from the EiC.

This case raises the question whether a non-researcher, with a single publication (i.e., a blog) read by millions, and the founder of a cycling advocacy group is qualified enough and free of serious bias when allowed to review our paper in which we expose the reviewer’s careless citation of an alleged finding from a secondary source.

Case 5. We submitted the same paper about uncritical citations of an alleged statistic to another, this time a brand new, journal. Before submitting it, I had requested permission from the EiC according to the journal’s guidelines. After EiC granted his permission, I submitted the paper.
After 25 days, I received a rejection letter with a few explanatory paragraphs. I thought it was a standard desk rejection; however, I was puzzled by EiC’s words “We have reviewed and discussed it” knowing that according to the online submission system the paper had not been sent out for review. After several emails, it became apparent that the paper was reviewed by the editorial board members who decided to reject it without external review. Nothing unusual as many journals employ such procedures; however, in this case, this is problematic on at least one account.

However, the journal’s guidelines state that “If suitable experts external to the journal cannot be found then members of the Editorial Board may be asked to complete a review task.” It might be questioned why EiC has decided to perform the peer review ‘in-house’ and not follow the journal’s guidelines which are very clear about this. My submission was probably the first submission the journal has ever received so it is even more puzzling why EiC decided not to follow the rules they set themselves.

“Authorities” in science – can one criticize their work? [not included in my article]
Mayer Hillman, whose specific piece of work we criticize in our still unpublished commentary (Cases 2-5), has been referred to in admiring terms by the EiC (Cases 2 & 3), who handled our submission and knowingly violated the journal’s privacy rules. The EiC refers to Hillman as “one of the founding fathers of our field of study” (Watkins & Mindell, 2011, p. 1-6). The EiC also uncritically cited the alleged Hillman’s statistics (Davis et al., 2011, p. 2-8). The founder and deputy editor of the journal in Case 5 also (somewhat neutrally) cited the Hillman’s statistics (Aldred, 2016, p. 70). The reviewer for the journal in Case 4 had also uncritically cited the Hillman’s statistics. As well as the researcher whose car hate motivated an entire research career.

Furthermore, the fact that the same reviewer was invited to review our commentary for two journals (Case 2) indicates that the research field is rather small. What are the chances that an article will pass the peer-review process if the gatekeepers are admirers of the researcher whose work is criticized in the article being reviewed and/or have themselves uncritically cited the researcher’s alleged statistics?

Author: Igor Radun

Igor Radun is a university researcher, PhD (2009) and docent (2015) in traffic psychology. He completed two post-doc abroad (Chalmers University of Technology 2011-2013, and Stress Research Institute, Stockholm University 2013-2015). He has received a recognition medal (Ansiomitali) for traffic safety work from the Ministry of Transport and Communications in 2019 and twice (2017, 2019) the H. J. Eysenck Memorial Fund Award. He serves as editorial board member in the major journal in his field: Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour. I am on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Liikennepsykol1

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