SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
9 September 2016
Volume 17 Issue 9

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Peer Review Ethics

Jen Lynch, SETAC Publications Manager

On 10 August, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) hosted a meeting in Philadelphia. COPE provides advice, support and education on publication ethics, specifically with regards to handling cases of research and publication misconduct. They provide best practice guidelines and tools, such as flowcharts, to help editors navigate the murky waters of plagiarism, authorship disputes, conflict of interest and compromised review. The last on this list, compromised review, was the focus of this meeting.

The first half of the day was dedicated to speakers from Retraction Watch, BioMed Central publishing and Origin editorial service providers sharing their perspectives and experiences with compromised peer review.

The definition of “compromised peer review” can include the identity theft of a prominent researcher, fake email accounts or reviewer identities, and authors enlisting the help of 3rd party organizations that “guarantee” publication. A quick look at the Retraction Watch leaderboard will spotlight the most egregious cases of peer review manipulation: authors that created personas and conducted their own peer review, authors that engaged in quid pro quo review and citations schemes, and authors that hired organizations such as “Edit Pub,” which bills itself as an author service provider but is actually a reviewer scam company.

The warning signs that a review is not legitimate could be reviewers providing a non-institutional email, heavy requests from the author for recommended or excluded reviewers, a rapid review turnaround, unanimous favorable reviews and difficulty finding the reviewer online. There were concerns that cracking down on some of the warning flags, like being more vigilant with non-institutional email addresses, would disenfranchise legitimate groups of researchers, such as postdocs, developing world researchers and recently retired scientists. There are many other ways to guard against fraud; one simple way is to encourage authors and reviewers to register with ORCID. It provides the researcher with a unique, digital identification number so that the research output, whether publications, patents or grants, is linked appropriately. Both SETAC journals have easy registration to ORCID through their article submission systems.

In addition to outright fraudulent review, which is not that common, there are other ethical issues surrounding peer review such as conflict of interest, lack of expertise and lack of transparency, which are all too common. Conflict of interest is often left to the honesty of the reviewer. Though many of our diligent editors do check publication records for collaborative efforts between the author and the reviewer, there is not such a clear path to determine competitive relationships. Issues can arise when a reviewer lacking expertise or experience agrees to review a manuscript. Editors often rely on the reviewer to be forthright when accepting an invitation by explaining any shortcomings that could affect the review. Lack of transparency includes passing off a review to a postdoc or graduate student – a common practice. While it is good to give younger career researchers the opportunity and provide them with instructions about how to conduct a solid review, reviewers should request permission to do so from the editor and provide the journal the name of the person reviewing the article. If the review is good, it is likely that the journal will cut out the middleman and use the early career reviewer directly. It is also better for the young career researcher to be able to claim the experience on his or her CV.

Peer review is based on trust, and it is a community responsibility to protect publication integrity. It is important to ask what would cause an author to behave unethically. In many institutions and countries, there are perverse incentives to publish in high impact factor journals, which can create immense pressures on the author or researcher. This is a more systemic issue that will take a long time to overcome. Perhaps more important to note is that the vast majority of the scientific community is honorable – one third of all retractions are due to “honest error,” and of the total research published, only .003% have been retracted due to compromised peer review. To date, neither SETAC journal has had to deal with illegitimate reviews. In the meantime, the SETAC Publications Advisory Committee is working with the SETAC journal editors to ensure that clear written guidelines for editors, authors and reviewers are available to prevent or help resolve ethical publishing issues.

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