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A Troubled Tradition

It’s time to rebuild trust among authors, editors and peer reviewers

David Resnik

The Importance of Trust

It seems that most scientists have a story or two about suspected unethical behavior among reviewers. As a beginning assistant professor, I submitted a paper on scientific methodology to a prestigious philosophy journal. The review took a long time—over a year—and when I finally got a decision, the paper was rejected with little comment. A couple of months after that rejection, a paper very similar to mine appeared in the same journal. The article did not plagiarize my work word-for-word, but it defended a similar thesis using many of the same arguments. I suspected that the author had served as a referee for my paper and had delayed his review to prevent my article from being published—or perhaps that he had pilfered my ideas. It is possible that the author of this competing paper had independently arrived at conclusions and arguments similar to mine, and that he had submitted his work to the journal before I did. But I had no way of knowing whether this was so. In the end, I was left with a bitter taste in my mouth and I lost some trust in the integrity of peer review.

It can be hard to determine when a reviewer has abused his or her position. Unscrupulous referees may plagiarize a submitted manuscript, breach confidentiality, delay the review process in order to stifle competitors, use data or methods disclosed in a manuscript without permission, make personal attacks on the authors or require unnecessary references to their own publications.

Incidents such as these violate the foundation of trust that is essential to successful evaluation of scientific manuscripts. Authors, editors and reviewers must rely on one another to fulfill their roles with honesty, transparency, confidentiality and professionalism. Absent such trust, the system simply doesn’t work: Authors and editors may ignore reviews that they think are biased or incompetent. Or, fearing that their ideas could be stolen, authors may withhold information necessary to repeat experiments—thereby compromising a key function of scientific publication. Editors who do not trust reviewers to work carefully and disclose conflicts of interest may ignore their comments or delay publication by seeking other reviewers. Disillusioned reviewers may submit careless evaluations or refuse to review manuscripts. Finally, authors who violate reviewers’ and editors’ trust by submitting fraudulent results can create lasting discipline-wide difficulties for other researchers.

To promote trust among authors, editors and reviewers, it is essential that all parties follow ethical standards. Most policies and scholarship related to scientific publication focus on the ethical duties of authors, but at least two sets of important guidelines do address reviewers. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors recommends that peer review be unbiased and that journals publish their peer-review policies. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a nonprofit organization of journals, publishers and individuals, has developed guidelines that address confidentiality of peer review, protection of intellectual property, fairness and conflict-of-interest management.

Some standards of peer review for editors and referees, recognized by COPE and leading authorities on research integrity, are:

Confidentiality: Maintain confidentiality throughout the review process.

Respect for intellectual property: Do not use authors’ ideas, data, methods, figures or results without permission.

Fairness: Avoid biases related to gender, nationality, institutional affiliation and career status.

Professionalism: Read manuscripts carefully, give constructive criticism, avoid personal attacks and complete reviews on time. Review only manuscripts that you are qualified to review.

Conflict-of-interest management: Disclose personal, professional or financial interests that could affect a review and avoid reviewing an article if a conflict of interest could compromise judgment.

If referees followed these guidelines faithfully, I suspect there would be very few setbacks in peer review.

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