Unfair reviewing

From The Embassy of Good Science

Unfair reviewing

What is this about?

Unfair reviewing refers to a reviewer abusing their position to promote their own interests or unreasonably disadvantage others. Unfair reviewing can occur during the process of peer review of journal manuscripts, grant applications or for colleagues applying for a promotion.

Why is this important?

Reviewing is part of the scientific process of ensuring  trustworthiness and accountability. Reviewers are in a position to exert power over manuscripts, grant proposals or promotions of others. With an unfavourable review, a manuscript might not be published, a  grant not funded, or a promotion not awarded. In relation to grant applications, there are instances where reviewers have provided a negative review to a proposal, then subsequently submitted a similar proposal (for a case study from The Office of Research Integrity , see here). Moreover, within peer review there are cases of bullying and using superiority to add, for example, the articles of the reviewers (e.g. see here). Reviewers might also be motivated to provide an unfavourable review because they are working on the same topic and want to publish their results first. When it comes to promotion of colleagues, a reviewer might abuse their position by unfairly reviewing one candidate, because they have a preference for another candidate.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

Being a reviewer comes with the responsibility of fairly reviewing others. One way to promote fair processes is transparent peer review. For example, Nature, BMC and EMBO now publish peer review and editorial comments after a manuscript has been accepted for publishing, when both reviewers and authors agree on this.[1] In the words of Nature: “in adopting transparent peer review, we are taking a step towards supporting increased openness, accountability and trust in the publishing process.”.[2] Transparent peer reviewing is an example initiative to encourage fair reviewing and to appreciate the contribution of reviewers. Moreover, having a bullying and harassment policy in place sends a signal that bullying, including unfair reviewing, is inappropriate,[3] thereby promoting good behaviour of scientists. Lastly, conflicts of interest should always be disclosed when professional or personal interests collide with the review process

  1. Nature will publish peer review reports as a trial. Nature. (2020). Accessed via: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00309-9
  2. Transparency in peer review. Nat Hum Behav 3, 1237 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0799-8
  3. Wellcome (2019) Bullying and harassment policy. Accessed via: https://wellcome.ac.uk/funding/guidance/bullying-and-harassment-policy

Other information

Virtues & Values
Good Practices & Misconduct