So reports an article by intramural researchers at NIEHS in this month’s issue of Science & Engineering Ethics entitled, “Perceptions of Ethical Problems with Scientific Journal Peer Review: An Exploratory Study.” The authors – David Resnik, Christina Gutierrez-Ford, and Shyamal Peddada – conducted an anonymous survey of participants at mandatory RCR training sessions at NIEHS (51% response rate). The average age of respondents was 42, with an average of 35 papers published.
Here were the questions and percentage of “yes” responses:
Have any of the following ever happened to you during the peer review process?
A reviewer was incompetent – 61.8%
A reviewer was biased – 50.5%
A reviewer required you to include unnecessary references to his/her publication(s) – 22.7%
Comments from reviewers included personal attacks – 17.7%
A reviewer delayed the review so that he/she could publish an article on the same topic – 9.6%
A reviewer breeched confidentiality – 6.8%
A reviewer used your ideas, data, or methods without your permission – 4.5%
Not surprisingly, there was a significant age effect with regard to perceptions about personal attacks: “the older the person, the more likely he/she would claim to have experienced at least one personal attack in his/her research career.” Similarly, postdocs (n=94) and principal investigators (n=38) were more likely than staff scientists (n=55) and technicians (n=33) to report negative perceptions of peer review. No differences were noted in the perceptions of men (n=119) versus women (n=97).
These are, of course, perceptions that cannot be verified to occur in the peer review process. As the authors note, how would a researcher know whether a reviewer breached confidentiality? Still,
documenting that scientists perceive that there are ethical problems with journal peer review can be an important finding in its own right, because a scientist may change his/her behavior in response to what he/she perceives to be a problem.
The authors urge others to study perceptions of peer review both to confirm the need for reform and to guide these reform efforts. For example, since these survey respondents reported incompetence and bias to the biggest problems, the authors suggest that
journals, research institutions, and scientific societies should consider ways of dealing with these problems, such as providing additional education and training for reviewers on the scientific and ethical standards for peer review, requiring reviewers to disclose conflicts of interest, and paying more careful attention to the selection of reviewers.
Nothing new or radical here, though they do then note that open review might need to be considered to address the most serious reported violations of peer review ethics, such as breach of confidentiality or stealing intellectual property.