The recent incidents in which authors manipulated the peer review system of The Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry and BioMed Central in order to get published have brought into the limelight an issue that is plaguing scientific publishing lately: peer review rigging. Peer review is used by most reputed journals as they believe it assures quality control in the publication of science. However, the pressure to publish has led some authors to exploit the peer review system. As indicated by the Retraction Watch team in an article in Nature, this malpractice of self-reviewing has exposed massive loopholes in the scientific publishing system.
Peer review rigging has led several journals, including esteemed journals such as those of SAGE, Wiley, and Taylor & Francis, to retract as many as 110 papers in the past 2 years. What publishers find most concerning is the ease with which the publishing system is exploited by authors. In the instance of peer review rigging that involved The Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal Chemistry, Hyung-In Moon—a medicinal-plant researcher—had set up a simple arrangement. He would suggest potential peer reviewers for his manuscripts and provide bogus e-mail addresses, that is, the review requests would go directly to him or his colleagues and the editor would be sent favorable reviews. Moon’s confession led to the retraction of 28 papers in various Informa journals and the resignation of an editor. Another notable incident of peer review rigging was the retraction of 60 papers by SAGE due to “peer review and citation ring” wherein the researcher Peter Chen used 130 fake e-mail addresses and fabricated identities to create phony reviews. These scandals have prompted discussions among experts about a significant issue: Should authors be allowed to suggest potential peer reviewers?
Many journals urge authors to submit the names of preferred peer reviewers along with their manuscripts. One reason for this is that editors wish to hasten the publication process since it is difficult to find reviewers who would agree to review manuscripts and abide by the journal timelines. Another important reason is that in specialized fields, authors are more capable of suggesting reviewers who have the capability of analyzing their research and do not have a competing interest. While it is entirely the journal editor’s discretion whether or not to contact the author-nominated reviewers, most editors find this arrangement suitable. Some others, however, strongly believe that editors should decide a paper’s peer reviewers, not the authors.
An interesting question to consider is whether there is a difference in the decisions made by author-nominated and editor-nominated reviewers. A study conducted by The Journal of Pediatrics about their own peer review system produced intriguing results. It was found that editor-suggested reviewers (ESRs) were less likely than author-suggested reviewers (ASRs) to recommend acceptance: while just 75% of ESRs recommended accept or revise, over 86% of ASRs recommended accept or revise. Since it is natural for authors to recommend reviewers who are likely to provide favorable reviews, some editors assign manuscripts to one or more reviewers of their choice in addition to author-suggested reviewers. According to Robert Lindsay—an editor-in-chief of the Springer-published journal Osteoporosis International—usually, editors from the west choose this route when they deal with submissions from Asian authors, since they may not be familiar with the reviewers suggested by the Asian authors and any conflicts of interest that may exist. Conversely, editors of some journals often specifically exclude author-suggested reviewers from consideration over concerns of peer review exploitation.
How can journal editors identify malicious intentions of authors and prevent them from manipulating peer review? Do any guidelines exist that can help journals deal with peer review rigging? Find answers to these vital questions in the next part of this article: Peer review rigging: What can journals do to tackle this problem?