Ghostwriting Peer Reviews

It's more common than you might think. And that's a bad thing for trainees and for science, a new study says.

November 1, 2019
 
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It’s considered extremely bad form -- or misconduct -- for a professor to take credit for a graduate student's or postdoctoral researcher’s work. And yet this happens commonly within the peer-review process, according to a new study in eLife.

The study, which is based on an online survey of about 500 early-career researchers concentrated in the life sciences, found that nearly half of respondents had ghostwritten a review for an invited reviewer, typically a faculty adviser. Three-quarters of respondents had engaged in what the authors say is the much more honest and beneficial process of co-reviewing articles.

Ghostwriting awards no credit to the trainee and is therefore unethical, the article says. Co-reviewing -- in which a student works with the invited reviewer with the understanding that his or her name will be submitted to the publication -- provides graduate students and postdocs training in the peer-review process and gives credit where it's due.

Respondents agreed that co-writing is beneficial, at a rate of 95 percent. Seventy-three percent said that it is an ethical form of training.

As for ghostwriting -- which half the sample had done -- 81 percent said that it was unethical. About the same share said that identifying co-reviewers to the journal is valuable.

Early-career researchers were motivated in large part to co-review because it's an opportunity to train as peer reviewers, what the study calls “a fundamental scholarly skill.” Principal investigators were the second-most-common source of this training, after learning “from receiving reviews on my own papers.”

The Ghosts of Peer Review

The paper measured ghostwriting experiences in several ways. Some 46 percent of respondents said yes to the question “To your knowledge, did your PI ever withhold your name from the editorial staff when you served as the reviewer or co-reviewer?”

Responding to a question, “When you were not the invited reviewer, what was the extent of your involvement in the peer-review process?” 44 percent of respondents reported having read a manuscript, written the report, had it edited by their principal investigator -- and seen it submitted under their PI’s name only.

In cases of ghostwriting, the majority of respondents said they hadn’t even discussed with their PIs why their names had been left off the review. Of the 27 percent of respondents who had ghostwritten and talked about it with their PIs, most were told that there was a journal policy barring giving them credit or that cultural expectations were to blame, or both.

Credit giving in co-reviewing isn’t always transparent, either, however: 70 percent of co-reviewers reported having made significant contributions to a peer-review report without knowingly receiving credit.

“These data reveal a breakdown in communication between invited reviewers and co-reviewers,” the study says.

Some of the biggest barriers to naming co-reviewers were a lack of editorial mechanisms to share their names, and cultural expectations -- such as the belief that reviews should only be done by the invited reviewer, or that sharing manuscripts with a co-reviewer would breach pre-publication confidentiality.

A Sensitive Topic, but New Policies Needed

Co-author Rebeccah Lijek, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College, said Thursday that ghostwriting is a sensitive topic because trainees don’t want to admit being involved or implicate the professors who are powerful figures in their careers. “You don’t want to piss off the boss,” she said, quoting a survey respondent’s response to an open-ended question.

Yet ghostwriting is an important thing to study, she said, to understand the scale of the problem. For the record -- and despite the apparent scale -- Lijek said that she was not surprised at the findings, based on her personal and anecdotal experience.

The study says that peer review would benefit from changes in both journal policies, which largely ignore or prohibit co-reviewing. Lab practices should also encourage mentored co-review and discourage ghostwriting, it recommends.

“Given how frequently ghostwriting occurs based on survey data, and how commonly journal policies are cited as the reason for ghostwriting, it seems that current policies that require invited reviewers to gain permission prior to involving [early-career researchers] in peer review are not effective deterrents for ghostwriting,” it reads. “Instead, these policies may have the opposite, if unintended, consequence of preventing invited reviewers from feeling free to add co-reviewer names upon submission.” So journals “should acknowledge that peer review is often performed by ECR co-reviewers and remove barriers that prevent ECRs from being named to the editor.”

Journals may benefit from such changes, too, in the form of bigger reviewer pools and increased accepted invites. Lijek said that PIs seek help from trainees with reviewing due in part to the demands of securing research funding in this competitive environment. If they expressly know they may enlist help -- and help out trainees in the process -- their willingness to take on manuscripts will likely increase.

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