The potential vulnerability of the peer review system to unethical behaviour is highlighted in an article from Bioinformatics. The journal reports a case concerning a peer reviewer who asked for the addition of more than 30 citations in each article reviewed, of which ~90% were self-authored and the remainder highly cited their work. The journal has since banned the reviewer. The decentralised nature of the peer review system was felt to have contributed to this behaviour going undetected for so long. Editors and authors are likely to be reluctant to accuse someone of unethical conduct when they may only have one instance upon which to base their judgements.
The journal now calls for greater scrutiny by journal editors to ensure that citations added post peer review are relevant and important. Authors are encouraged to be vigilant and not to be tempted to comply with unjustified suggestions for citations to satisfy reviewers. Bioinformatics has also updated its guidance to peer reviewers (not publicly available), allowing the inclusion of a reviewer’s own papers only when there is clear rationale that the article under review would otherwise be scientifically weaker. Reviewers are asked to refrain from requesting the addition of ‘substantial’ numbers of references — defined as more than one reference per printed page — and should not make vague mention of incomplete reviews of the field but rather specify the nature of the missing studies to be included.
To provide a more cohesive record of peer reviewer behaviour, it is suggested that journals track which peer reviewers make self-citation requests. Where misconduct is suspected, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has guidelines on how editors should approach sharing of information with other editors within the confines of confidentiality. It is hoped in the future that centralised resources such as the publication activities tracking website Publons and researcher identifier ORCiD may help to identify patterns of unethical behaviour. Once a concern has been raised, the article emphasises that simply removing a reviewer from reviewing duties may not address the wider implications. Instead, COPE advises contacting the reviewer for an explanation as a first step, and if it is unsatisfactory, bringing the matter to the attention of their immediate supervisor.