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Download Preventing Fraudulent Peer Review

The Pace of Change

As for so many things, the internet has completely changed the way scholarly journals are managed. The leap in connectivity and communications means journals are no longer tied to physical offices or reliant on sending manuscripts by fax, post, or courier. Modern manuscript subscription and peer-review platforms cut publication times, pushing up the pace of progress and scholarly discourse. The benefits are manifest.

At the same time, there is a backdrop of growing numbers of submissions. Emerging regions are making their own significant contributions, and the rise of the ‘mega-journal’ and Open Access have put pressures on — and opportunities in front of — scholarly publishers and associations. Peer review remains key to this process. While not perfect, it’s the only proven arbiter of the worthiness of a scholarly publication, not just advising on veracity, but helping refine and improve that work.

It’s Not In the Post

Any reliance on email communications has a downside, though. On the internet, no one knows who you are. Real identities hide behind names that appear on our screens. Spam, phishing, and other scams crowd inboxes. Few of those emails arise from legitimate senders. Journals, now reliant on email communications, have to trust those addresses and the people behind them. Otherwise, who are they communicating with?

And that trust, in several recent cases, has turned out to be misplaced. More manuscripts mean more reviewers are needed. The alternative would be to pressure existing reviewers. Good reviews take time and effort, and have to compete with busy schedules. Peer review requires qualified, experienced, and — importantly — willing individuals. Asking the same individuals over and over results in reviewer fatigue and an unwillingness to take on further reviews.

Journals have developed a number of strategies to increase their number of potential reviewers. A common strategy is to ask authors to suggest suitable reviewers. This isn’t as counterintuitive as it may seem; authors are often well-placed to know who has the expertise to comment on their manuscript — it is, after all, their field. Editors should always use their own judgement on whether to accept those suggestions and to consider possible bias in any returned reviewer reports.

But what if those suggestions aren’t reliable?

Who Am I Talking To?

This has been the problem in several recent cases. The result has been the embarrassing retraction of a large number of published papers and a shadow cast on the peer review processes of the journals in question. Nor can anyone truly know the extent of the underlying issue. In these cases, ‘reviewers’ were either entirely fictional accounts linked to an email address owned by an author, or in some cases may have appropriated the names of real individuals.

Invitations to review papers were effectively sent to the authors, who were unsurprisingly inclined to give quick, favourable, uncritical reviews advising publication. This is potentially not the only misleading strategy. Others may include suggesting amenable colleagues, who have agreed to give favourable and uncritical reviews (perhaps for the same consideration). It’s important not only that the reviewers be genuine, but that they have sufficient expertise to adequately review a manuscript.

The Blame Game

Some commentators have pointed a finger at the platforms themselves. It is true that all editors and journal staff should be aware of the issue. An email address cannot be trusted without further verification. Like most problems online, it shouldn’t be seen as an entirely technological issue — people remain the vital components of the peer review process — but technology can offer several solutions and strategies to ameliorate the problem. Furthermore, technology can help grow the number of qualified reviewers ensuring that journals can continue to manage a growing number of submissions.