Editors weren’t “unable to verify reviewer identities” — reviewers just weren’t qualified


We can’t resist flagging some misleading language in a retraction note for a 2015 paper on the inner workings of an amoeba pathogen.

The note for “The Charms of the CHRM Receptors: Apoptotic and Amoebicidal effects of Dicyclomine on Acanthamoeba castellanii” is short, so we’re going to give it to you up front:

This accepted manuscript has been retracted because the journal is unable to verify reviewer identities.

Sounds like another case of faked emails to generate fake peer reviews, right? But that’s not what happened to this paper, according to the editor in chief of Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, Louis B. Rice, a professor at Brown University:

The retraction was necessary because of an editorial error in using the author’s suggested reviewers, whose lack of qualifications to review the work only came to light after the manuscript had been accepted and made available online.  The retraction was deemed necessary because of the potentially compromised peer review.  However, I as the Editor-in-Chief concluded there was no attempt by the author to manipulate the review process.  The retraction in no way represents any wrongdoing on the part of the author, who has been encouraged to submit his work to ASM journals in the future.

Rice told us how issues with the peer review came to light:

The area of investigation is one with relatively few highly qualified referees. The author suggested the original reviewers, we believe in good faith.  It was later recognized on review of their publication history that their expertise was not sufficient in this area.

We asked why, then, did the retraction note say that the peer reviewers could not be identified? Rice told us:

The wording was imprecise.  We did in fact eventually verify the reviewer identities, and in so doing concluded that they were not sufficiently qualified.  After detailed discussion with the author, I determined that his suggestion of these reviewers reflected naivete rather than an attempt to manipulate the review process.  Since the manuscript had already been published online, we retracted the paper.  It has been rejected on scientific grounds and will not be published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

We confirmed with Rice that the journal did submit the paper to another peer review with qualified reviewers before it was rejected. He declined to tell us why the paper was rejected.

We still find the wording very strange, so we asked if there were plans to change it. Rice said no:

I am not aware of any plans to change the wording.

The sole author is Abdul Mannan Baig, a biologist at Aga Khan University in Pakistan. We emailed him, and we’ll update this post if we hear back.

Hat tip: Tom Jove 

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6 thoughts on “Editors weren’t “unable to verify reviewer identities” — reviewers just weren’t qualified”

  1. I am confused. If the peer reviewers were not suitably qualified, then who exactly approved the manuscript for publication, and based on what screening process or quality control measures? Did the editors conduct any quality check? The editor’s wording suggests that reviewers’ identities and qualifications were verified after the paper had been published. Could Dr. Rice confirm the chronology of the case? If, as Dr. Rice states, “the retraction in no way represents any wrongdoing on the part of the author”, then why did AAC simply not find suitable reviewers and reinitiate the manuscript revision once again? How is this not an unfair decision?

    1. They _did_ do a new review round – and it was then rejected, as is stated in the article itself: “We confirmed with Rice that the journal did submit the paper to another peer review with qualified reviewers before it was rejected.”

      1. It’s great that RW obtained this information from the editor. For the sake of truth and transparency, this information should appear in the published retraction notice — which, as it stands, gives a misleading account of the facts.

        The retraction notice would lead some to jump to the conclusión that the author had gamed the peer review system. Thanks to RW, we know this was not the case. The author deserves a more detailed and honest retraction notice, for the record and on the record.

        Or at the very least, AAC should add a link to this RW entry to their retraction notice.

  2. It was bad enough when journals were expecting authors to do the editors’ work and provide a list of suitable reviewers. Now they are blaming the author when the reviewers turn out not to meet some unspecified level of qualification.

    1. I agree. The COPE guidelines are clear, one of the editors roles is to:

      “ensure that appropriate reviewers are selected for submissions (i.e. individuals who are able to judge the work and are free from disqualifying competing interests”


      Surely this means verifying the expertise of any reviewers *before* they are selected?! Yes, some journals invite authors to suggest reviewers – and some effectively make it mandatory by configuring software so that page will not be accepted without text in the fields. But those suggested reviewers are just that – *suggested*. The editor is in no way obligated to accept these suggestions. I’m not aware of any reputable journal that does not give its editors full and independent discretion to select reviewers.

      On a large point, this is yet another example of authors being forever associated with a “retraction”, despite there being no suggestion of misconduct or problems with their research activities. COPE’s description of “retraction” explicitly links retractions to actions of the authors. As far as I can tell, COPE is silent on problems stemming from actions of publishers or editors (such as publishing an article twice, or publishing the wrong version of an approved article). I strongly believe that COPE needs to update its guidelines (and case studies) to address specific examples where the author has done absolutely nothing wrong, and fault lies with publishers and/or editors.

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