Ethics: An Essential Area for Better Peer Review

March 13, 2019 Chris Graf

What does better peer review look like? This post describes the second “essential area” for better peer review, namely “Ethics,” from our article “What does Better Peer Review Look Like?” A dedicated group of Wiley colleagues published this work in the peer-reviewed journal Learned Publishing in January 2019, after we first shared an extended version of our work in a preprint. We asked Emily Brown, Associate Managing Editor for a portfolio of life sciences and humanities journals at Wiley, for reactions on our article, and to reflect on the recommendations we make. Our goal is to enable journal teams to identify areas where their practice is great and areas where they may want to make improvements.

Q. Emily, the definition we chose for the essential area of “Ethics” is that “Peer review addresses the ethics of the work under review when it establishes that the work was conducted responsibly. Journals use peer review to check that the work they consider publishing was conducted in a way that treated participants (people, animals), the environment and colleagues responsibly, in a way that minimizes harm and meets community expectations (self-regulation) and regulatory requirements.”

What is your top priority for journals in improving research ethics in peer review?

A. I believe that all journals should run on a double-blind peer review process. I think perhaps subconsciously at times people are biased. Communities of research groups in many areas of scientific research can be very close-knit. For example, mostly everyone knows everyone if the specialty is small. It only takes some prejudice or bias against somebody’s work (or perhaps their religion, ethnicity, or gender) to prevent a good paper from being accepted. Would it not make sense that all papers are treated equally and therefore no-one knows who has written the paper and who has reviewed it to prevent prejudice?

Q. Yes, and I’d add a thought that blinding and transparent peer review are both approaches designed to address bias in the peer review process. It’s interesting that they seem to find opposite solutions while addressing some of the same problems and this may reflect different approaches in different subject disciplines. So, how do you think the recommendations we published in Learned Publishing can help journals conduct better, more ethical, peer review?

A. The article will influence how people think about how they conduct peer review – be it from the perspective of an editor, reviewer, managing editor, or publisher. I come into work every day and use our journal processes in much the same way as I have since I took the role. My processes are an old familiar friend. The article makes me question that, and stop and think “Is that really ethical?”. Reading this paper makes me realize I have these questions, and that I can consider making changes. For example, I might ask why we are not conducting better peer review, no matter how long it takes to deliver? There’s a tension in there, though, between quality of peer review and timeliness: How much longer might an author be willing to wait if it means they’ll get a better review for their paper?

Q. The tension that you note between quality and timeliness is interesting. I think most authors would value a little more speed from journals. We address this in the fifth of our posts, about our essential area “Timeliness”. What practical steps can journals take to make peer review better, and more ethical?

A. Keep communications between all persons involved open and transparent. For example, there seems to be a “hush” sometimes about not informing an author that we have been unable to locate suitable reviewers. If we told authors, then maybe they would be able to suggest reviewers (of course, so long as there is no conflict of interest).

Thank you, Emily.

Journal team members who are interested in making their peer review processes better can read our article, published under a Creative Commons license by Learned Publishing. We have created a Better Peer Review Self-Assessment tool, derived from this work.

With our Better Peer Review Self-Assessment, you can record your reflections on your current practices, and you can plan new directions. You will receive an immediate summary of your results, then we’ll follow up with your total score by quartile, your Better Peer Review Badge, and Data Visualization. And there’s more: Our Better Peer Review Self-Assessment works if you’re based inside Wiley or outside Wiley at one of the many societies and associations for which we’re proud to publish. Ask your Wiley publisher for more information! We hope you find the whole Better Peer Review experience useful, and that you’re able to identify areas for new directions and improvements to peer review at your journal.

Don’t miss our other post in this series: Integrity: An Essential Area for Better Peer Review.

About the Author

Chris Graf

Director, Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics at Wiley // Director, Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics at Wiley, and is Co-Chair of COPE, Committee on Publication Ethics (an elected and voluntary position for which he will serve a 2-year term). Chris leads initiatives at Wiley that focus on transparency, research integrity and publishing ethics.

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