Peer Review

Background

Journal editors, especially in the sciences, rely on the expert opinions of knowledgeable researchers to ensure the quality of papers they publish. Granting agencies utilize a similar system in determining grant awards. The process of having submitted manuscripts or grant applications reviewed by objective experts in the field is known as peer review--the cornerstone of scientific and scholarly publication. In a recent international survey of over 3,000 academics, 93 percent felt peer review was necessary, and 90 percent said it improved the quality of published papers. On the other hand, a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine stated that “Editorial peer review, although widely used, is largely untested and its effects are uncertain” . In fact, an experimental study in the journal Brain found that two reviewers agreed about a paper only slightly more often than would be expected by chance alone.

Peer review and confidentiality

Most peer reviews are conducted with some degree of anonymity. Typically, papers in the sciences are reviewed in a single-blind manner: that is, the author(s) of the paper is known to the reviewer, who remains anonymous. The humanities and social sciences more often use a double-blind system, where neither the authors' nor the reviewers' identities are revealed. There are arguments both in favor of and opposed to each system. Keeping the reviewer's identity secret allows the reviewer to be honest in their comments without fear of repercussions; however, it may permit bias on the part of the reviewer. Double-blinded review may avoid the problem of bias, but it may be impossible to keep the identity of an author secret—a knowledgeable colleague, working in the same field of study, is likely to be able to deduce the author's identity from their work.

The fact that manuscripts are reviewed prior to publication, by researchers in the same field who may be competitors (or whose colleagues may be competitors of the author), can lead to ethical concerns about confidentiality of the data or research results. Reviewers working in a closely related field may obtain insights or ideas from the manuscript that could unfairly benefit their own research. It is even possible that a reviewer could delay publication in order to allow his or her own work to be published first. In a more typical situation, however, it can simply be difficult for a busy researcher to keep track of the source of ideas—did that great insight come during a conversation with my colleague, or from that grant proposal I read?

Conflicts of interest and peer review

Experts in the same field may be actively working in the same area, with overlapping research goals. Researchers in the same field may know each other, be friends, collaborators, or enemies. Financial conflicts of interest arise when reviewers may benefit from publication of papers concerning a product or process produced by a company in which they have a financial stake. Family members of the reviewer, or the institution with which the reviewer is affiliated, may also be a source of a financial (or other) conflict or interest for the reviewer. Reviewers are often busy academics, and reviewing (which is usually unpaid) may present a conflict of commitment, leading reviewers to spend too little time on the review, or pass the job on to a graduate student.

Alternatives to peer review

To address some of the limitations of the existing peer review system, some journals have experimented with open peer review, in which the identities of reviewers and authors are not concealed. Attitudes and opinions about open peer review vary, as do the perceived success of the journals’ experiments. Even though the system may be tweaked or modified in the future, the peer review system is likely to remain in place well into the future. As John Moore stated, “My own views is that it’s the least-bad system that can be devised, and that, although it might need tinkering with, its fundamentals should remain intact.”

References

 

PSU Policies

The Pennsylvania State University is committed to fostering integrity in the conduct of research. All members of the research community, including faculty, research staff, students, fellows, adjunct faculty, and visiting researchers, are expected to adhere to the highest ethical and professional standards as they pursue research activities to further scientific understanding.

The goal of the Guidelines is to offer a set of values, principles, and standards to guide decision-making and conduct throughout the research process. It is not intended to provide a set of rules that prescribe how researchers should act in all situations. Rather, the Guidelines are intended to increase awareness of research integrity and outline the University's expectations for ethical behavior amongst all researchers.

The Guidelines discussed are not mutually exclusive. There are many circumstances when many of them apply to a single project or activity. The risks of non-adherence to the Guidelines can be both personally and institutionally great. Potential consequences of non-adherence are outlined in the University polices that form the foundation for these Guidelines.

Resources

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Case Study

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Peer Review Resources
By Yale University

Articles