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Ethics of peer review: Moving towards greater inclusion, diversity and transparency

Let's start by defining a few terms as they apply to academic publishing.

  • Peer review: The evaluation of scientific, academic or professional work by others working in the same field. In academic publishing, it is the review of submitted papers carried out by peers to determine publication merit.
  • Ethics: Moral principles that govern a person's (or academic journal's) behaviour or conduct of an activity.

The peer review process is perhaps the outstanding hallmark of academic publishing. Subjecting manuscript submissions to review of peers began in 1731 with the Royal Society of Edinburgh; by the mid-20th century, most journals had implemented some system of peer review. Despite criticism of the process, most people agree that it remains a core element in evaluating which submissions should be published.

The old days

In the old days (as recent as the 1990s), the peer review process was essentially a black box to anyone outside a journal editorial office. Authors submitted their manuscripts, and perhaps received confirmation of receipt by the journal. Then they waited, trusting the journal would review the paper fairly and expeditiously.

Eventually, authors received notification of the outcome of peer review. But how that review took place, the processes that guided it, who the peers were who were conducting the review – such things remained a mystery. Insertion of bias (knowingly or innocently) was highly possible at many points in the process. And decisions of the editor were final.

Not surprisingly, the compositions of editorial boards and reviewer panels of most major journals reflected the dominant culture of academia of the time: they were overwhelmingly white, male and from first-world countries and premier academic institutions. Equally unsurprisingly, the great majority of submissions and published papers came from similar sources.

The present era

Great strides in technology, transparency of the process and recent focus on diversity and inclusion have led to intentionally improved ethical practices in peer review. Most journals now not only acknowledge the importance of personal, professional and cultural identity, but also celebrate identity richness and have begun to insist upon it. The amplification of diverse voices is seen with greater frequency at the editorial board and reviewer panel level, as well as with a much broader range of identities in the authorship of articles. Every stakeholder in the system—readers, authors, journals, publishers, even funding agencies—all benefit.

What authors should seek: Hallmark ethical practices of peer review

As an author, what should you look for regarding peer review practices of prospective journals? No journal will divulge everything, but the more transparent a journal is on the following items, the more likely it is to be committed to ethical peer review:

  • Diversity of the editors, editorial board members and review panel: Diversity is broadly construed: in terms of gender, country of origin, academic institutions, specialty focus and even the age and career stage of reviewers. A journal's masthead will reveal much. Comparing the masthead from 10 years ago to today, you should see great gains in diversity.
  • Detailed and clearly posted information on peer review process: Good journals will provide information regarding their peer review practices. Again, not every detail can be made public, but journal websites should indicate the steps they use in the process. Equally important is a statement of how the journal minimises bias (financial, academic, gender, age) in its review process. Showing how the patty is made, along with many of the ingredients, is not glamorous. But such transparency greatly increases trust.
  • Regular reports and articles on their peer review process: Seek journals that publish reports on their peer review process. How many papers were submitted? What was the gender distribution and country of origin of authors? How many reviewers were utilised on average, and what are the demographics of their gender, ethnic origin and career stage? Are the reviewers en bloc named and thanked for their service? Do they receive continuing education credit for conducting reviews? Does the journal provide editorials on peer review and inclusion?
  • Ease in communicating with the editorial office: Authors should always feel welcome when they contact a journal's editorial office. You should feel free to enquire about the peer review process, diversity and inclusivity policies, and ways a journal identifies and minimises bias amongst its editors and reviewers. 

Summary

The peer review process is far from perfect. But it is becoming more participative and less biased all the time. With new emphases on inclusion, diversity and transparency, the ethics of peer review become more robust and refined every year.

 

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