This week is Peer Review Week. This year’s theme is “Trust in peer review.” As I’ve been thinking about “trust” in relation to peer review this week, I’ve been reminded that those involved in the work of peer review (journal editors, authors, and reviewers) are deeply bound by trust. By this I mean, all place confidence in one another to be truthful and ethical. And once a manuscript is published, readers place trust that the process of peer review has been truthful and ethical, and that the findings of published research are credible. Let’s look at this further…
Authors place trust in:
- Editors to assign reviewers who have sufficient expertise to review manuscripts submitted fairly and in a timely way.
- Reviewers to treat information and arguments in a manuscript ethically, and that they will not share unpublished work with others or steal authors’ ideas.
- Reviewers to give fair assessments of manuscripts and provide comments respectfully to assist in strengthening their work where appropriate.
Editors place trust in:
- Reviewers to complete tasks ethically, fairly, and in a timely way.
- Authors to submit manuscripts that have not been submitted elsewhere, to have conducted research ethically, and to not have engaged in plagiarism, falsification and fabrication (all of which are grounds for charges of researcher misconduct).
Reviewers place trust in:
- Authors to have conducted research ethically, and that articles do not contain plagiarism, fabrication or falsification of data.
- Authors to consider reviewers’ comments and provide reasoned arguments for how they revise work.
Readers place trust in:
- The peer review process to ensure that published work has been fairly evaluated by scholars who have expertise to judge the merit of arguments presented.
Breaches in trust occur when:
- Authors submit work that is flawed or fabricated. In 2018, several scholars engaged in a hoax in which they submitted 20 faked papers to show that the peer review system was “broken.” This became known as the Sokal Squared Hoax (Kafka, 2018). However, by engaging in work that was fabricated, they themselves breached the trust of editors and reviewers.
- Reviewers don’t take sufficient time to write reviews that are helpful to authors, or make hasty recommendations that are not supported by evidence. The work of reviewing that is part of the additional service that academic staff engage in takes precious time from other tasks that are more highly valued. Engaging in peer review is an act of generosity – something of a labor of love. To take the process lightly by rejecting engaging in the process altogether or taking insufficient time to write thoughtful and respectful reviews overlooks the benefits that can be gained from reviewing. Engaging in peer review has benefits, since we learn about new scholarly work; we are encouraged to think about ideas that perhaps contradict our own; and we learn about others’ writing.
- Editors do not undertake a fair review process. For example, manuscripts might be assigned to reviewers with insufficient expertise to judge the merit of an author’s arguments. This means that editors must take care in who they assign reviews to; and reviewers themselves must not take on reviewing tasks for which they have insufficient expertise. On the other hand, reviewing is a learned skill, and one must practice. Senior scholars and academic advisers can mentor graduate students into the process of peer review by facilitating opportunities for new scholars to review conference abstracts, or submit reviews for journal articles. When I have done this, I typically ask the journal editor if I can have a student submit an additional review with my own. (No request has ever been declined!) After a student and I have reviewed an article separately, we read one another’s reviews, and discuss those before submission. The student’s review can be labeled to let the author know that it has been submitted by an early-career scholar.
The scientific community as a whole must be willing to be open to new ideas and innovative ways of thinking. To have our work published entails a collaborative and ethical process among editors, reviewers, and authors… and readers of academic research will benefit.
For more information on trust in the peer review process, read Alice Meadows’ post
For more information on Peer Review Week 2020, see
For anyone new to writing reviews, there are numerous guidelines for peer reviewers on publishers’ websites… check these out!
Kafka, A. (2018, October 3, 2018). ‘Sokal squared’: Is huge publishing hoax ‘Hilarious and delightful’ or an ugly example of dishonesty and bad faith? The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Sokal-Squared-Is-Huge/244714
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