We use cookies on this site to enhance your experience

By clicking any link on this page you are giving your consent for us to set cookies.

Tips from the editorial office: Ethics in peer review



Performing peer review and doing it to a high standard is an academic responsibility; as an active researcher you are being asked by a journal to constructively assess the work of another academic in your field and make suggestions for improvements that might enhance someone’s career. Is this paper good enough to be published in our journal? What suggestions for changes do you have that would make this paper good enough? At least this is how peer review is supposed to work.


Sadly, in my experience, many people don’t view the peer review experience in such a positive light; they try to find reasons to reject by pointing out problems with articles, or even to advance their careers at the expense of others. The most common responses we get (I’ve been a journal editor for the last 15 years) to peer review requests is ‘no, I’m too busy’, or a reluctant ‘ok, I’ll do it’. Initial responses are often negative.


A range of recent studies and reports have shown that the best and most effective peer reviewers tend to be young researchers at the start of their careers, not yet too busy with other academic responsibilities. We provide training to help researchers avoid the pitfalls of unethical peer review behaviour in our Charlesworth Knowledge workshops, courses, and online materials. Don’t be tempted to act unethically if you get the chance to perform peer review.


Learning about these issues at an early career stage is important; this is because editors know that some colleagues even view the peer review process as an opportunity they can cynically exploit to further their careers, and even their own publication productivity. Our advice at The Charlesworth Group is to always try to be positive, constructive, and above all ethical when you are asked to conduct peer review for a journal. Although there are clearly many issues with this system (not least of which the fact that reviewers are almost always asked to perform tasks ‘free of charge’ for journals), the critical skills and access to literature and journals you can gain from this process far outweigh any drawbacks and are transferrable to other careers; you are always likely to be asked to work on papers or reports that others have written, whatever your future line of work.


Here’s one extreme example of unethical behaviour by a peer reviewer that we experienced this week at our journal to illustrate how this process can ‘go bad’. On Monday, we received a manuscript submission and so we processed it as normal: checked the formatting, ran a plagiarism check to make sure that the content had not been recycled from previous publications without citation, and selected some appropriate peer reviewers. We sent a series of emails to solicit peer review.


About three hours later we got another email from the authors of the submission: They’d decided to withdraw their paper. This is extremely unusual (people tend to want to see their papers published if the’ve reached the point of submission to a target journal) and so, as is standard, we asked for a reason for withdrawal. The authors replied that they had been contacted by one of the peer reviewers we had selected, who had informed them that ‘he was already working on this topic, they should withdraw their paper, and then add him as an author to a re-write’.




Needless to say, this situation is highly unusual and completely unethical. As a peer reviewer, you should not write directly to authors to ask them about their work; all communication should be via the journal’s editorial office. In particular, writing to tell authors what they should do with their articles in this way is almost completely unheard of, but it can happen.


In this case, as standard in journal publishing, both the authors of the original submission and the peer reviewer will be looking for a different outlet for their work in future. This provides a good example of why many journals are moving towards (or are already using) so-called ‘blind’ or ‘double-blind’ systems of peer review; reviewers do not know the identities of authors (‘blind’) or both parties are kept in the dark by an editorial office (‘double-blind’). These are positive developments because they limit opportunities for unethical behaviour.


Charlesworth Knowledge has a range of courses, workshops, and online materials available to help you learn about ethical and effective peer review. We are members of the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE). Why not get in touch with our team for more information?




Share with your colleagues