Revising the ethics of peer review

I was impressed this week by an excellent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the characteristic meanness of the peer review process. Personally I have had some dreadful and some wonderful experiences. Take the time to read the article in the Chronicle and the excellent recommendations for greater responsibility, transparency and respect in this important process.

The author Erik Schneiderhan recommends possibly naming reviewers following a final decision; increased editing of review comments by editors; tenured staff voicing their concerns about nasty reviews to editors directly; modelling good behaviour directly as well as mentoring students to review responsibly. He also suggests that public shaming by means of an anonymous wiki page to ‘out’ unkind reviews and their journals might prompt greater action on the part of editors.

Schneiderhan’s first suggestion to identify reviewers after the fact is particularly interesting. At many universities the PhD examination process bears key similarities to the process of peer review. At the University of Melbourne examiners are anonymous until after the process is complete, when they may be identified to the graduate. If we adopt this approach in peer review – which happens more than once in a researcher’s lifetime – there is a risk that researchers may learn their ‘favoured’ reviewers and develop an overly-cosy relationship. But this may be mitigated by an editor with complete information available to them. A similar practice may well occur now through resubmission to preferred journals. In any event, greater transparency usually leads to better outcomes. This is certainly one to work on.

Section Six of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (Australian Code) addresses peer review. The current advice for reviewers is limited to:

6.2 Conduct peer review responsibly

It is important that participants in peer review:

  • are fair and timely in their reviewact in confidence and do not disclose the content or outcome of any process in which they are involved
  • declare all conflicts of interest, do not permit personal prejudice to influence the peer review process, and do not introduce considerations that are not relevant to the review criteria
  • do not take undue or calculated advantage of knowledge obtained during the peer  review process
  • ensure that they are informed about, and comply with, the criteria to be applied
  • do not agree to participate in peer review outside their area of expertise
  • give proper consideration to research that challenges or changes accepted ways of thinking.

All sound advice. Researchers, too, have responsibilities in the Australian Code and this is proper. These include a responsibility to participate in peer review, not to interfere with the process, to mentor junior colleagues and to declare conflicts of interest.

But notably researchers do not feature anywhere in the list of responsibilities for reviewers. I find this puzzling, because the act of peer review is essentially an act of communication. The researcher is the ‘absent referent’ in the review process.

The ACRCR is pending review by the NHMRC. I therefore suggest adding at least one more to the list of recommendations for peer reviewers:

  • treat the researcher(s) whose work is under review with respect.

Readers may disagree or have other suggestions they might wish to discuss with their colleagues and students, but the principle of respect strikes me as a step in the right direction.

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Clare McCausland