The peer review system is complex and the results influence advancement of knowledge, patient care, policies, careers, future funding decisions, and more. The triad of individuals involved in this system, authors, editors and reviewers, all have important roles to play to make sure this system works. Some of these roles correspond to functions that affect the timeliness of review decisions, submission of a meaningful review, and clear communication of expectations of all of the participants. These are largely structural factors that support the peer review process and most of the time journal management and education about the peer review process can assure a smooth process.
Peer review is more likely to go sideways, to fail, due to ethical breaches by peer review participants. Some of these breaches are illustrated by cases submitted to the COPE Forum, where members give advice and suggest policies and procedures, moving firmly in the direction of quality in peer review.
Case 18-03 describes a case in which a handling editor and a group of reviewers he or she frequently invited, regularly requested that authors added citations during revision to papers that the handling editor had co-authored. The editor and editorial board reviewed these cases and found that in many cases, the suggested citations did not advance the argument of the paper.
This case prompted the Journal to implement a variety of steps for education of editors with a year affirmation that they understand their ethical requirements and that the Journal’s code of ethics, along with COPE materials, are familiar to the editors. The editor in question resigned.
Authors often suggest reviewers for their papers. The topic of submitted manuscripts can be very narrow and it is helpful, at times, for editors to be directed to possible content experts. Case 12-12 illustrated the pitfalls of using only the suggested reviewers. In this case, after an unusual pattern of very positive and very fast reviews were noted for papers of a particular author, the editors asked the author to explain. The author admitted that the provided emails either were not legitimate and were under the author’s control or were those of colleagues who provided favorable reviews.
This manipulation of the peer review process is egregious and potentially criminal. The author admitted fraud, raising concerns about other papers she or he had submitted. The case provides a strong cautionary tale for editors regarding selecting reviewers as well.
Reviewers have the ethical duty to decline to review a paper for which they cannot provide an unbiased review, as noted in COPE's Ethical guidelines for peer reviewers.
Case 15-05 illustrates multiple ways that a reviewer failed to uphold this principle. The reviewer failed to disclose when invited by the editor to review the paper, their involvement in the design of the research project being reported. In fact, after the paper was published, the reviewer and another colleague asked to be named as authors. This particular case illustrates ethical breaches by the original authors and the editor in the choice of this reviewer, who was known to be a co-author of other papers with the author group.
COPE ‘s Ethical Guidelines for peer reviewers offers a clear articulation of steps that potential reviewers should go through when considering an invitation to review. This document could be shared with new reviewers of journals or regularly disseminated or made available on journal websites. The Forum response to this case included a recommendation by some that the reviewer in question be expunged from the reviewer pool, having demonstrated a failure to adhere to the fundamental principle of avoiding conflicts of interests. This type of step is one that journals can take to assure quality in peer review.
There are a variety of COPE resources to assist journals, editors, authors and reviewers. The sample cases illustrate cases where ethical principles broke down. The Forum provides an anonymous resource for any COPE member within the peer review system to ask for advice and help, particularly in situations that prior cases or other COPE resources do not provide the needed information.
For all its flaws, the peer review system usually works well. Most people in the roles of authors, reviewers, editors and journal staff are motivated to do their work ethically and well. Focusing on the outliers shouldn’t overshadow the generally good work within this complex and fundamental system.