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Junior researchers often ghostwrite peer reviews

29 April 2019

A new survey reveals the alarming extent of a practice that is universally considered unethical.

Around half of the researchers participating in a new survey have admitted ghostwriting referee reports on behalf of senior faculty.

The study, posted on bioRxiv on 26 April, analyzed nearly 500 researchers’ experiences serving as peer reviewers. The high proportion of people who have contributed to referee reports while receiving no credit comes despite the fact that 80% of respondents also condemn the practice. Most of the survey participants work in the life sciences and are early-career investigators, which the study authors define as anyone who isn’t an independent leader of a research group.

“While most of us knew this sort of activity went on, we had no idea about the extent of the practice,” says Allen Wilhite, an economist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville who was not involved in the study. Wilhite and others have explored various fishy practices in academic publishing, but this new study is one of the few to focus on ghostwriting and its prevalence.

The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity states that ghostwriting is “ethically unacceptable because the reader is misled as to the actual contributions made by the named author.” Guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics say that any supervisor thinking of involving students or junior colleagues in peer review must obtain prior permission from journal editors.

Nevertheless, 46% of all the survey respondents claimed their principal investigators had withheld their names from journal editors when they reviewed or helped review papers. Most survey respondents also said they never discuss with their PIs the idea of getting named credit for reviews.

Around three-quarters of survey respondents reported participating in co-reviewing, contributing ideas and possibly text to reviews while receiving named credit. Most think this is an ethical and beneficial practice. Co-reviewing can be useful in training young researchers in peer review, says study coauthor Rebeccah Lijek, a biologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. But she adds that it’s important to demarcate the often-blurry lines between co-reviewing and ghostwriting.

The most common reason that researchers give to justify ghostwriting is prohibitive or unclear journal policies, the survey shows. Many of those policies disapprove both of reviewers sharing unpublished manuscripts with colleagues and of early-career researchers carrying out reviews.

Lijek says that journal policies are exerting selective pressures on referees, forcing them to choose between disclosing that they’re disobeying a rule and withholding a co-reviewer’s name. She suspects many researchers choose the latter option, seeing it as a lesser evil. “Changing journal policies to reflect the current status quo—that involving co-reviewers is common and considered valuable and ethical—would remove this forced choice and might increase the likelihood that co-reviewer names are provided to the journal.”

It’s unclear whether the same trends exist in the physical sciences, Lijek says, since only around 13% of survey participants are from those fields.

Andrew Preston, managing director of London-based Publons, a site that helps academics claim credit for conducting peer reviews, says ghostwriting could help junior researchers learn the art of reviewing. “All things being equal, a world where some ghostwriting happens and junior researchers are getting that experience is probably better than a world where they are not getting any experience at all,” he says.

But given the scale at which ghostwriting appears to take place, “the issue requires serious attention, and concrete actions should be taken,” says Ludo Waltman, deputy director of the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He says switching to post-publication peer review and disclosing the content of reviews and the identity of reviewers could fix the problem. “It’s too risky for a senior researcher to publish a non-anonymous peer review report that has actually been written by one of his or her students,” he says.

For Lijek, it’s important that authorship of peer reviews is treated like authorship of original research. “Peer review is real academic work, just like writing a manuscript,” she says. “We want people to be able to get credit where credit is due, should they find it valuable.”

Thumbnail image credit: hobvias sudoneighm, CC BY 2.0

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