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Recognizing the role of Early Career Researchers in Peer Review

"Our academic elite plagiarises daily, without anyone even raising an eyebrow."

Science journalist Leonid Schneider put it bluntly when he took on the issue of ghost-writing in an article last year. Rarely discussed in the open, ghost-writing occurs when established academics pass on their peer review invitations to their junior colleagues and fail to advise the journal editor or credit their colleagues for it.

It's often used as a form of training, which is desperately needed in peer review, but has limited impact when performed behind closed doors.

The Future of Research (FoR) has an initiative dedicated to assessing how widespread this problem is and define ways to improve it - not only for the benefit early-career researchers, but for the entire scientific community.

Here to talk about this project with us is FoR's Executive Director, Dr. Gary McDowell:

Dr. Gary McDowell

Peer review of manuscripts is recognized as a fundamental service activity of academic researchers. Therefore, those training in academic research should be participating, and receiving training, in constructive peer review.

Undergraduate and graduate students in particular should be engaged in this training, and those who undertake postdoctoral research should be fully capable of carrying out an independent review.

How involved are these early career researchers (ECRs) in journal peer review? A recent survey in eLife indicated that 92% of those surveyed had undertaken reviewing activities. But more than half, and 37% of graduate students, had done so without the assistance of their advisor. Indeed, anecdotal reports of “ghostwriting” of peer review reports - the submission of someone else’s work to an editor under the name of the invited peer reviewer - are widespread.

"Anecdotal reports of “ghostwriting” of peer review reports - the submission of someone else’s work to an editor under the name of the invited peer reviewer - are widespread".

The reasons cited for this practice vary. For some, it is that the journal is not permissive and may not allow ECRs to review, or it may be that the guidelines for inviting other reviewers are punitive. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers states that “Supervisors who wish to involve their students or junior researchers in peer review must request permission from the editor and abide by the editor’s decision” and some invited reviewers may not ask editors before carrying out the review, or may not wish to risk doing so, and instead therefore may not reveal the presence of co-reviewers upon submission. In other cases, this practice may simply be what the primary investigator experienced in their own training; or perhaps they may not even be aware of the ethics of this practice.

To submit someone else’s work under your name is, strictly speaking, plagiarism - consider, for example, if papers were to be submitted without the named contributions of all involved. Ensuring that journal editors can identify coreviewers is the focus of the #ECRPeerReview project being driven by Future of Research (FoR) in collaboration with other efforts. The project aims to educate the general academic population, and provide guidelines and text for journals around best practices, to ensure that all of those who carry out peer review for the journal are identified to the journal.

"Ensuring that journal editors can identify coreviewers is the focus of the #ECRPeerReview project being driven by Future of Research (FoR) in collaboration with other efforts".

FoR began the project by carrying out a survey of the experiences of academic researchers in performing peer review in August 2018, to survey the landscape and gather data on the extent of ghostwriting. This data will then inform the rest of the project, and highlight particular targets for recommended policy changes and education.

Simultaneously, FoR is participating in a collaborative effort across a number of different organizations dedicated to making publishing more transparent. TRANSPOSE (TRANsparency in Scholarly Publishing for Open Scholarship Evolution) is a grassroots project to crowdsource journal policies on peer review and preprints and one aspect of the data collection is identifying and recording the coreviewer policies of journals, to identify which journals do and do not explicitly allow coreviewers, and how they record or recognize the participation of such reviewers. This will allow identification of the journals to champion for already facilitating coreviewer training and/or identification, and also identify the journals to be targeted for requests to changes in their practices.

The project will then target journals with suggested changes, supplying journals and editors with suggested language and expectations to provide to invited reviewers, to make clear that the expertise of a research group, and not just of the individual reviewer, is often realistically what is received in a peer review report. Providing a text box in review forms to identify coreviewers and the extent of their contribution will also be requested of journals.

Education of the academic community about the need to identify coreviewers, and the ethical guidelines surrounding identifying those who carry out peer review activities, will be part of an outreach campaign. Given the oft-cited low number of reviewers carrying out peer review, and the need for more reviewers, identifying a new vast pool of reviewers through making who actually carries out review transparent will be of benefit to the entire community. This will also require education of the community about the peer-reviewed literature identifying the strengths of ECRs as peer reviewers. Making peer review training a clearer expectation and more prominent activity in graduate training will be carried out in combination with those leading efforts in training, particularly those driving efforts such as graduate student preprint journal clubs.

"Given the oft-cited low number of reviewers carrying out peer review, and the need for more reviewers, identifying a new vast pool of reviewers through making who actually carries out review transparent will be of benefit to the entire community".

Ultimately, we aim to reach a scenario where ECRs who wish to carry out peer review can receive recognition for peer review, where they can be more easily identified in reviewer databases for future reviews (and, potentially, be identified as early career members of editorial boards of journals) and can receive recognition, should they wish it, through sites such as Publons.


Publons supports co-authored reviews

Reviewers who add a review to Publons can invite their peer review collaborators to also claim the review for their Publons profile - for instance, a supervisor might want to give their student credit for co-writing a review with them. See how it works >>


Publons Global State of Peer Review Report

What does the peer review landscape look like today? Is it getting better or worse? And who's actually doing all the peer review, anyway? We made it part of our Peer Review Week mission to find out.

  • Publons' Global State of peer review report combines:
  • Rich and extensive data from Clarivate Analytic's ScholarOne Manuscripts and Web of Science
  • Data-driven analysis from Publons' exclusive cross-publisher peer review platform
  • Survey responses from ~12,000 researchers around the globe
  • Statistics and insight to reveal the peer uncover the future direction of peer review.

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