Annual Meeting Reports

Peer Review Ethics: Do Journals Need to Ensure that Reviewers Behave Ethically?

Over the past several years, ethical issues surrounding peer review standards have made headlines as more cases of fraudulent or unethical peer review surfaced. The session “Peer Review Ethics: Do Journals Need to Ensure that Reviewers Behave Ethically?” covered a broad range of current discussions surrounding ethical peer review. Darren B Taichman, Executive Deputy Editor of Annals of Internal Medicine, began the session by breaking down the types of fraudulent peer review into two distinct categories: the sensational and the common. The sensational examples tend to garner the most headlines but also tend to be rare. An example of this would be when authors masquerade as reviewers in order to submit favorable reviews of their paper and ensure publication. Although covered less often in the media, Taichman believes that the common forms of unethical peer review can be just as damaging. Examples of this include instances when a reviewer delays the peer-review process to the detriment of the paper under review to strengthen his or her own chances, competing research being published, or a failure on the part of the reviewer to disclose a potential conflict of interest. “We should be laying out expectations for colleagues when performing a peer review,” said Taichman. Clear expectations can help reviewers maintain ethical standards while completing their reviews.

Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch, spoke about the need to not only examine reviewer ethics but also to examine the ethical standards of journal editors. Oransky used the recent issue surrounding papers published by Hyung-In Moon—a South Korean plant-compound researcher—to illustrate the role some editors may play in unethical peer review. Moon had 28 papers published in the journals of one publisher. The submission process requested the author to suggest reviewers who would be appropriate to review his work. Moon suggested a reviewer but entered his own email address for that of the suggested reviewer. The editor subsequently invited the suggested reviewer and Moon submitted glowing reviews within 24 hours. Twenty-eight papers were published before the journal discovered the pattern of almost instant reviewing and became suspicious. Had the editors taken the time to vet the suggested reviewer, they would have seen that the email address associated with the potential reviewer was a Gmail email account and not associated with a specific institution.

Oransky referenced several options for combating unethical behavior, including postpublication peer review. He also noted that one prominent scientist, David Vaux of the Walter and Elizabeth Hall Institute of Medical Research, has suggested tripleblind peer review in which the identities of all parties—authors, editors, and reviewers—are blinded from one another. Ultimately, Oransky suggests that editors must consider their role in the current climate of peer review. “Everyone is going to behave badly, by the way; editors can behave badly too. The indirect pressure you can put peer reviewers under can have an effect on reviewers’ behavior.”

Carol Carr spoke about her experience with Organic Letters and its policies for peer review. She began by highlighting how difficult it is to police ethical behavior. “It is really tempting fate to think that we can ensure all reviewers are behaving ethically. It’s like ensuring your kids won’t have a meltdown in the supermarket,” said Carr. Given the laughter in the audience, most seemed to agree with this sentiment. With that in mind, Carr focused most of her discussion on what journals can do to maintain their reviewer pool and ensure that their potential reviewers are the most appropriate people to review their journal’s content. She highlighted the importance of monitoring an individual reviewer’s statistics to see if any patterns in their reviews might point to bias. For example, do they always accept or reject the papers they review? If so, this can be an indicator that this particular reviewer has a bias for or against a particular topic and might not be assessing the paper with an open mind. She also recommended that editors check affiliations and reconcile those against the email addresses listed in the reviewer record. Finally, although it can be helpful to consider an author’s suggestions for potential reviewers for a particular paper, she emphasized that it’s important to not rely solely on them.