Ask Athena: What To Do When a Board Member Stands Accused

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Ask Athena is Science Editor’s advice column for your most challenging publishing and editing questions. Submit your questions to  

Dear Athena,

Our journal has a large editorial board, and one of our members has just been charged with a crime. A trial will be forthcoming, but there has not yet been a decision of guilt. The crime does not involve research misconduct, but is loosely related to our profession. What should the journal do now? 



Dear Accused,

How unfortunate. Because you don’t have a lot of information, and nothing has been decided in a court of law, it is best at this point to remain cautious and remember that this person is innocent until proven guilty. You should not do anything that would punish the board member before you have more information. 

If your journal is published by a society, you should consult with the legal team, either in-house or external. They can advise you as to how to proceed. The society may have a policy for such situations, and there may be ramifications to this person’s volunteer activities if they go beyond peer review. For example, the person may not be allowed to serve on committees until the outcome of the trial is determined, or their name may need to be removed from the Editorial Board listing. If you are with a large publisher, they will likely have legal counsel that can provide input. 

Your next steps as a journal depend somewhat on your level of comfort because, again, the person has not been declared guilty. If the person is a peer reviewer on a paper currently under review, you could notify them that their review is not needed. Or, if the editor is comfortable, allow the person to submit the review, and the editor can determine whether that review is useful and unbiased. If the accused is a co-author on a paper under review, that review should proceed as normal. If they are a corresponding author on a paper under review, allow the review to proceed as normal, but use this time to decide what you will do if the paper is later revised and resubmitted. It may be reasonable to decline to review the paper until the trial is completed. As mentioned above, your publisher or professional society may have policies in place that can guide those decisions.

If it is later determined that the person is innocent, then all can return to normal. On the other hand, if the verdict is guilty, any sanctions that went into effect when the person was accused should remain permanent. Reputation is important, and even the appearance of conflict of interest can be a problem.  This may sound harsh, but especially if the case is widely known, the journal may not want it to be seen as a mark against them that one of their editorial board members is not an esteemed member of the professional community. 



Answers to Ask Athena questions are a group effort by members of the CSE Education Committee.