In what co-author Dr Rebeccah Lijek describes as “one of the worst kept secrets in academia”, a recent survey published in eLife has shown that it is common practice for early career researchers to be involved in the peer review of manuscripts for which they are not the invited reviewer.
The survey made a distinction between ‘co-reviewing’ (making significant contributions to a peer review report as a non-invited reviewer) and ‘ghostwriting’ (co-reviewing without identifying the contributor to journal editorial staff). Nearly three quarters of respondents had co-reviewed a manuscript. Importantly, around half of respondents had ghostwritten a peer review report on behalf of their research group leader, despite 81% viewing ghostwriting as unethical.
Around half of respondents had ghostwritten a peer review report.
Most respondents felt that co-reviewing is a beneficial (95%) and ethical (73%) form of training in peer review. However, in a recent opinion piece, Dr James Sherley argues that the place to learn peer review skills is in open working forums, such as departmental journal clubs and graduate courses. He reasons that inexperienced reviewers may do a disservice to submitting authors, as deficient reviews could result in manuscript rejection, impacting researchers’ career success, research funding and even scientific progress. It may also exploit early career researchers if they are denied credit. Furthermore, Dr Sherley believes that co-reviewing erodes academic integrity by violating the professional ethics of peer review.
In contrast, the study’s authors highlight potential benefits for journals if barriers preventing early career co-reviewers being named as contributors are removed: this could help to enlarge reviewer pools, while addressing ethical concerns surrounding ghostwriting. While the study’s authors put the onus on journals to take responsibility for fair and ethical peer review, Dr Sherley believes that academic institutions need to begin teaching ethical manuscript review as a core principle of academic life. With many ongoing initiatives aiming to improve peer review processes, we are interested to see how these issues may be tackled in future.