A federal magistrate in Massachusetts last week ruled that The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) does not have to comply with a subpoena issued by Pfizer forcing the journal to provide confidential peer-review documents related to the painkillers Celebrex (celecoxib) and Bextra (valdecoxib).
The drug firm had tried to compel the journal to hand over peer reviews and internal editorial discussions for 11 papers on the painkillers. It argued that these would help it defend the arthritis drugs in lawsuits alleging that they caused heart attacks and strokes (see Nature 452, 6–7 ; 2008 and this post on Spoonful of Medicine blog).
In his 12-page opinion, Leo Sorokin wrote that the material Pfizer sought seemed relevant on first examination, but that “NEJM‘s interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the peer-review process is a very significant one … and tip[s] the scales in favor of the NEJM" .
The judgement comes three weeks after an Illinois judge ruled against Pfizer after it issued almost identical subpoenas to The Journal of the American Medical Association and Archives of Internal Medicine.
The Nature journals’ guidelines for reviewers state: “Reviewers should be aware that it is our policy to keep their names confidential, and that we do our utmost to ensure this confidentiality. Under normal circumstances, blind peer-review is protected from legislation. We cannot, however, guarantee to maintain this confidentiality in the face of a successful legal action to disclose identity in the event of a reviewer having written personally derogatory comments about the authors in his or her reports. For this reason as well as for reasons of standard professional courtesy, we request reviewers to refrain from personally negative comments about the authors of submitted manuscripts. Frank comments about the scientific content of the manuscripts, however, are strongly encouraged by the editors.”
We are advised that if peer-reviewers follow this advice, it would be extremely unlikely that there could be legal grounds to force their identities to be revealed.