Study reveals cracks in peer review

Study from Mount Holyoke professor reveals that nearly half of junior researchers contribute anonymously to peer review.

By Keely Sexton

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers found that nearly half of career researchers — mainly graduate students and postdocs — contribute or co-contribute to peer review at the behest of their principal investigators while their work goes uncredited and journals remain in the dark.

The study was published in the open-access journal eLife. 

The issue belies a fundamental problem in academia, where overburdened PIs are invited by journals to review manuscripts, and then ask their junior colleagues to do the work but choose not to tell the journal. 

According to the article, the chief reasons PIs cited for engaging in the practice were preserving the appearance of manuscript confidentiality (which precludes the invited reviewer from sharing the manuscript), the lack of means to give credit to a co-reviewer, and the need to train early career researchers in the fundamental academic process of peer review.

Rebeccah Lijek, assistant professor of biology at Mount Holyoke College and the senior author on the study, believes that addressing the structural impediments to crediting early career researchers in journals would be to the advantage of not just early career researchers, but to their PIs, as well.

“Invited reviewers are experts by definition, so they should be trusted to involve whomever they consider to be the best person on their team to critique the research. PIs who provide feedback to the early career researchers and name them to the editor are right to consider co-review an integral part of quality mentorship,” said Lijek.

Further, according to Lijek, while training early career researchers in peer review is undoubtedly important, the informal nature fostered by uncredited co-reviewing means that some early career researchers have access to it while others do not.

“Peer review is integral to research and so teaching peer review should be integral to researchers’ education,” said Lijek, who teaches on the subject. “It would also make peer review training equally accessible to all early career researchers, rather than a privilege available only to those with PIs providing quality mentorship.” 

Lijek and colleagues became interested in the work after attending the 2018 Meeting on Transparency, Recognition, and Innovation in Peer Review in the Life Sciences, which gathered thought leaders in academia, publishing and granting agencies. 

“We noticed a disconnect between the way young scientists currently experience peer review — frequently as co-reviews and ghostwriters — and the way the peer review system is expected to work,” she said.  

After a literature review did not reveal any studies on ghostwriting, they designed and conducted an online survey to discern how widespread the practice is and what contributes to it.

They found that while practices of uncredited co-reviewing are generally considered unethical, it has become the academic norm. The implications go beyond the simple lack of credit for work performed. Contributing to peer review is an important skill in academia and it advances careers by enabling reviewers to become more widely known among both publishers and peers. For foreign researchers, demonstration of the work can demonstrate eligibility for residency or visas.

To begin to address the issue of uncredited work, Lijek suggests that journals should adopt policies to explicitly allow co-reviewing when co-reviewer names are shared with the journal editor, better communication between early career researchers and PIs about expectations of credit, and a reframing within the academic community of the importance of peer review in order to place a heavier emphasis on the intellectual work that such reviews demand.

“With the publication of this article, we hope to shed light on this unspoken yet important role that early career researchers play in peer review and catalyze much-needed change in the policies and practices that have allowed it to continue for so long,” said Lijek.