Scholarly journals have traditionally used peer review to assess the scientific validity, novelty, and significance of submitted manuscripts. As a result, reviewers have considerable influence over what findings are published, effectively serving as filters of new research. Just as authors have moral obligations before, during, and even after writing a research paper, reviewers are encouraged to adhere to ethical guidelines throughout the peer review process, as outlined by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). The COPE framework may initially seem overwhelming, but it mainly consists of three categories of responsibilities: confidentiality, objectivity, and diligence.
Confidentiality is critical to prevent the theft of ideas, which could compromise the originality of a new study. To this end, peer reviewers should adhere to the following guidelines:
- Do not share the details of the manuscript or review with individuals other than the journal’s editors
- Do not use information about the manuscript or review to anyone’s advantage or disadvantage
Objectivity is necessary to provide authors with a fair assessment of their manuscript. Peer reviewers are thus encouraged to
- Avoid negative bias, including prejudice against a nationality (based on affiliation and/or language), a research topic, or negative results
- Avoid positive bias, including favoritism due to an author’s prominence, as in the case of honorary authorship
- In double-blind review, remain blinded to the authors’ names to reduce bias
- In both single- and double-blind peer review, remain concealed from the authors to reduce the likelihood of confrontation or retribution, allowing a more frank critique
- Declare any conflicting or competing interests, such as the same research topic/direct competition, a close personal relationship or collaboration with the authors, or recent co-authorship with the authors
- Avoid requesting citations of their own work for personal gain
- Avoid disparaging personal remarks
Diligence involves the thorough, appropriate, and honest assessment of a manuscript, which is heavily dependent on objectivity. Peer reviewers who agree to review a manuscript should
- Have expertise in the subject area
- Be honest with the journal about their identity
- Intend to submit a review and be open to reviewing resubmissions and revisions
- Read the manuscript thoroughly, even if previously reviewed by another journal
- Return the review in a timely fashion
- Adhere to the journal’s specific scope, policies, and peer review model
- Report any potential ethical issues, such as duplicate publication, data fabrication, or unethical design
- Provide constructive feedback with a respectful tone, rather than unfounded criticism, to both the authors and the editors, including recommendations of relevant references, specific experiments that would improve the study, and ways to improve clarity
Regarding the last guideline, some have noted that recommended additions should be directly pertinent, as well as feasible in terms of both cost and time required. Ultimately, a referee should provide information that allows the editors to confidently make a decision and the authors to truly strengthen their paper. The most central ethical obligation of both peer reviewers and editors is to prevent erroneous and/or unsubstantiated findings from being published, which could mislead subsequent research.
Ethical considerations for authors and journal editors
There are also ethical considerations related to peer review on the parts of both the authors and the editors:
- Reviewer exclusions: authors are typically permitted to name researchers whom they would prefer not to review the manuscript due to perceived conflicts of interest, such as work in the same research niche
- Review of reviewers: journals may periodically assess peer reviewers’ performance to ensure compliance with journal and ethical guidelines
With recent developments in publishing, the review process is evolving; how might this affect the ethics of peer review? Many open access megajournals, such as PLOS ONE and PeerJ, are asking reviewers to focus on assessing the quality of the science instead of its potential impact. This shift may improve the objectivity and diligence of reviewers, encouraging them to concentrate on a more quantitative aspect (validity), rather than on more subjective characteristics (novelty and significance). An emphasis on technical soundness reduces the selectivity of the peer review filter cited above, necessitating the involvement of the greater research community in assessing the importance of a study through post-publication peer review (such as via PubPeer or PubMed Commons).
The journals mentioned above, among others, encourage referees to reveal their identities after manuscript publication and may even publish reviews, potentially further enhancing peer reviewers’ objectivity and diligence by holding them publicly accountable for their critiques. Although a recent sting published in Science suggested that open access journals frequently lack rigorous review, the study included many negative controls, in the form of predatory journals that neglect the ethics described above, but lacked a control group of traditional journals. Moreover, the analysis examined all studied journals together, rather than stratifying the publications by different peer review guidelines (such as a primary focus on validity versus a traditional approach) and models (such as blinded versus open review). In fact, PLOS ONE, which is well respected among open access journals and has a clearly defined review model, was shown to have particularly thorough peer review. A better-controlled study is therefore needed to confirm the ethical implications of open access publishing and new iterations of the review process.
Have questions about how to behave ethically as a peer reviewer? Let us know! We can draw on our extensive experience as authors and reviewers.