The ethics of peer review

With more and more journals adopting electronic peer review, we’ve also seen an increase in ethical concerns surrounding peer review. Here we look at the ethics of peer review, including some of the key issues and what editors should be aware of.

Fake reviews and safeguarding peer review integrity

One of the most high-profile ethical issues is the increase in cases of ‘fake reviewers’. This is where authors suggest seemingly legitimate academic reviewers, but the email addresses that accompany the suggestions are not controlled by the person named. Instead, the email address is controlled either by a biased close associate of the author, or the author of the manuscript themselves, posing as a qualified reviewer.

As a responsible publisher, Taylor & Francis has taken the decision to safeguard the integrity of our peer review by removing the ‘Preferred reviewers’ function from our ScholarOne Manuscripts and Editorial Manager sites. This means that during the author submission process, contributors are no longer asked to suggest the names and contact details of possible reviewers. See here for more information on this.

Best practice guidelines for editors

Editors have a responsibility to ensure that they and their journals are following the latest guidance on maintaining peer review integrity. To that end, editors should follow the points below.

Clarify peer review policies for the journal

  • State the types of peer review offered – journals should have clearly defined policies on the type(s) of peer review they use.
  • State whether an article has been peer reviewed – journals should make it clear to readers whether peer review varies between types of article. For example, if editorials and letters are not peer reviewed, but original articles and reviews always are, by a minimum of two independent reviewers.

Journals should also be clear if they operate a triage process. This is where submissions that are out of scope or otherwise inappropriate may be rejected or returned to the author without independent peer review.

Apply consistent peer review standards

Editors should apply consistent standards in their peer review processes, including for special issues, supplements, or where peer review has been managed by a guest editor. For journals where research content is published, a minimum of two independent expert referee reports should be sought before an accept decision is made. Reject decisions may be made without seeking advice from independent referees. Content that is not considered research, for example: book reviews, editorials and letters to the editor may also be accepted for publication without independent peer review.

Ensure confidentiality

Editors should ensure confidential handling of article manuscripts. No details should be disclosed to anyone except the peer reviewers without permission from the author.

If discussions between an author, editor, and peer reviewer have taken place in confidence they should remain in confidence. This is always the case unless explicit consent has been given by all parties or there are exceptional circumstances (for example, when they might help substantiate claims of intellectual property theft during peer review).

Editors should also ensure that all those carrying out peer review on behalf of the journal understand and adhere to the need for confidentiality relating to the peer review process

Be aware of reviewer bias and competing interests

Before agreeing to review an article, reviewers must declare any competing interests (also known as ‘conflicts of interest’). This includes any relationship with the author that may potentially bias their review. Editors should ask that reviewers decline invitations where there is a potential competing interest, however, it’s also the responsibility of the editor to check these details for themselves.

For example, an editor should check if a reviewer has worked with the author in the last three years or shares the same affiliation. This is just one example of something that may constitute a potential competing interest and could lead to a biased review.

When submitting their manuscript, the author’s cover letter may outline reviewers that they don’t want to review their paper. This can help the editor find any potential competing interest and assist them in selecting appropriate reviewers.

Authors may also choose to include a list of suggested reviewers. However, we recommend that editors select their own reviewers, to avoid any review bias. In addition, editors should request that invited peer reviewers inform them if they delegate peer review.

Manage a reviewers’ database

To ensure journals have a pool of trusted reviewers, it’s important to establish and maintain a secure database of suitably qualified peer reviewers. This needs to be compliant with data protection legislation.

Using the database allows editors to monitor the performance of peer reviewers for quality and timeliness. Peer reviewers who repeatedly produce poor quality, tardy, abusive, or unconstructive reviews can and should be removed from the database.

Ensure reviewers are aware of guidelines

Our reviewer guidelines provide an important source of support for reviewers about what to expect during the peer review process, how to write review reports, and the ethical considerations involved.

Be aware of the need for co-author verification

Editors need to ensure that all co-authors listed on an article have made a genuine contribution to the research. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) defines gift authorship as “when somebody who has made little or no contribution to a research project or publication is included as an author”. This practice is often a benign mistake, but it is still inappropriate.

Careful checking of co-author details is the first step toward educating inexperienced academics on correct practices. Take a look at our guide to co-author verification.

Read the Taylor & Francis Editorial Policies.