In a recent Nature Index article, Dalmeet Singh Chawla highlights that between 2012 and 2016, more than 500 papers were retracted for compromised, rigged, or faked peer review, with some authors going as far as to completely fabricate their suggested experts. With such a risk for bias and misconduct why do many journals still accept, and often request, suggestions for peer reviewers?
Essentially, requesting suggested peer reviewers is a quick way to find experts who are best fitted to review the work, which is important as the delays and potential for editorial bias from peer review can be a source of frustration for researchers. Also, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit peer reviewers, at least partly due to a phenomenon known as ‘reviewer fatigue’.
As noted by Singh Chawla, journals must determine whether the benefits of allowing suggested peer reviewers outweigh the potential risks. Even top publishers have different lines in the sand when it comes to accepting suggestions for reviewers, with some not accepting them at all, others discriminating based on previous co-authorship or other criteria, and others relying on the Editor’s discretion.
The issue extends from publishing to grant proposals, with research from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) showing that reviewers recommended by grant applicants are four times more likely to give favourable feedback than those who are chosen at random. This finding led the SNSF to change their policy in 2016, to prevent applicants from recommending individuals to assess their funding applications.
At a time when the current process of peer review is being debated, publishers and funders alike need to weigh up the benefits and risks of accepting suggested reviewers to maintain their value and reputation in the scientific community.
Summary by Robyn Foster PhD from Aspire Scientific
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