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How transparency can abate peer review scams

How transparency can abate peer review scams

This article was originally published on Wiley Exchanges and has been republished here with permission.  

Scientific research is flourishing – there is an increase in the volume of publications, the number of discoveries, and the number of researchers too. On the flip side, while pushing the boundaries of science, researchers sometimes get tempted into pushing the boundaries of publication ethics. Incidents of research misconduct, especially pertaining to the peer review process, have become shockingly common. One such widely reported incident was the retraction of 107 papers by the journal Tumor Biology due to the evidence of peer review rigging. This incident brought into focus the need for transparency in peer review.

Peer review is regarded as the gold standard for evaluating scientific communication. Time and again, however, it has been targeted as a soft spot by researchers and, at times, even editors. A publication that receives a stamp of approval by experts in the field is regarded with trust, so researchers strive to build a portfolio of peer-reviewed publications. Favorable peer review recommendation is the stepping stone to getting published, thus researchers who are desperate for publications rig the process. The extreme competitive nature of academia and the pressure to publish are the most common reasons responsible for this behavior. Several institutions across the globe expect researchers to get published frequently in journals with a high impact factor. Thus, in a bid to secure their jobs and get promotions, grants, and salary increments, researchers may cut corners by manipulating peer review.

Researchers looking to influence peer review take advantage of a major loophole on the journal end – the lack of transparency. Most journals adopt closed peer review, which involves either single-blind or double-blind review systems. As the identities of the reviewers, the reviewer comments, and the author responses remain hidden from the public eye, this can serve as a cover for authors. They can create fake identities and self-review papers, and if the only person accountable for verifying the authenticity of the review – the journal editor – fails to identify this, the misconduct may never be uncovered. To prevent this, some journals such as F1000Research  and BioMed Central have adopted alternate peer review models such as post-publication peer review and open peer review to lend transparency to the peer review process.

Editors too are under pressure to evaluate the hundreds of manuscripts they receive on a daily basis and process the papers in time. Finding suitable and available reviewers is challenging, so some journals follow the practice of allowing authors to suggest reviewers. In the absence of transparency, this can provide a wide window of opportunity for authors to appoint reviewers who would provide favorable reviews. Since publishing review reports along with publications is not a commonly followed norm, authors have been known to create peer review rings wherein they create secret accounts and review their own papers to their gain without being discovered.

How can transparency help? The peer review process has existed for a century. But much of what happens behind the scenes – that is, what peer reviewers look for, the exchange between reviewers and authors, and how editors arrive at a decision – is shrouded in mystery. Making the process more lucid can work in the favor of the authors, editors, and readers. Publishers and journals should lay down the details of what happens during the review process and provide review reports alongside published papers. This step towards making the process more open will also dissuade authors from attempting to manipulate it. Editors must also build a pool of reliable reviewers to reduce the stress of finding reviewers, so that they are able to focus on the review quality and make informed decisions. Needless to say, this would also reduce their dependence on authors to appoint reviewers.

Peer review rigging is extremely damaging to scientific advancement and it is not enough to detect these incidents. While authors need to be educated about the consequences of indulging in misconduct, editors should make an effort to ensure that the appointed reviewers are trustworthy. Publishers, on their end, should consider making the peer review process more open. Peer review is based largely on trust, and to lend more transparency will require a combined effort from authors, editors, and publishers.

This blog post is based on the author’s article, ‘What causes peer review scams and how can they be prevented?’, published in Learned Publishing (DOI: 10.1002/leap.1031).

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