Peer review scams: What can journals and editors do to tackle this problem? [Includes checklist]

This article is part of a Series
This article is part of a Series

Peer review rigging

The recent incidents in which authors manipulated the peer review system in order to get published have brought into the limelight an issue that is plaguing scientific publishing lately: peer review rigging. What has led to this problem – is it the ‘publish or perish’ culture of science or the journal practice of asking authors to suggest reviewers for their paper? This series takes a close look at the issue of peer review rigging and how it can be tackled.

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Peer review scams: What can journals and editors do to tackle this problem? [Includes checklist]

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2014 and has been refreshed for Peer Review Week 2017.

A previous article discussed how recurring incidents of peer review rigging in the recent years are posing a significant challenge for the scientific publishing system. Journal editors are striving to find ways to prevent their peer review process from manipulation.    

A major impediment in the resolution of this issue is the lack of any commonly accepted guidelines. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) suggests editors to check reviewers’ names, addresses and e-mail contacts thoroughly, and to never use only author-nominated reviewers. However, in the absence of specific practices regarding the use of author-nominated reviewers, journals vary in their practices of ensuring a fair and proper peer review. Many experts, such as Liz Wager who authored the research article Are reviewers suggested by authors as good as those chosen by editors? Results of a rater-blinded, retrospective study, believe that journal editors can play a decisive role in preventing peer review rigging. Apart from checking for conflicts of interest, editors should conduct an independent, thorough research of peer reviewers—irrespective of whether they have been suggested by authors—to ensure their authenticity and credibility before sending review requests.

Cat Ferguson, Adam Marcus, and Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch have identified some suspicious signs in peer reviewing that journal editors should be aware of:

  • The author asks to exclude some reviewers, then provides a list of almost every scientist in the field.
  • The author recommends reviewers who are strangely difficult to find online.
  • The author provides Gmail, Yahoo, or other free e-mail addresses to contact suggested reviewers, rather than e-mail addresses from an academic institution.
  • Within hours of being requested, the reviews come back. They are glowing.
  • Even reviewer number three likes the paper.

Apart from this, journals should secure the automated processes they use to conduct peer reviews as this will prevent authors from misusing the system.

The increasing number of peer review rigging incidents in recent times and the retractions that follow point to the need of developing a set of best practices for peer review, which can help journals in identifying and impeding unethical intentions of authors. Whereas journal editors should be vigilant while selecting peer reviewers, awareness should be created among authors about the importance of publishing ethically to avoid peer review fraud.

As authors and reviewers, what is your opinion on this issue? What can journals do prevent the rigging of peer review? 

Related reading:

Why should I select preferred reviewers and how should I do it?

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Published on: Sep 15, 2017

Sneha’s interest in the communication of research led her to her current role of developing and designing content for researchers and authors.
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