As scientists here at ELSI, we all know the importance of the peer reviews of the papers that we want to publish in high-quality, high-impact journals. Peer review is an essential part of scientific research, because it acts as a gatekeeper, only allowing passage of the best scientific studies while discarding the unworthy or incorrect. Even though the current peer review system has an equal number of advantages and disadvantages, scientists have come to rely on it and put their trust in it.
However, several recent developments have cast a long shadow on the process, its merits and, above all, its fairness. The first of these developments is the recent decision by the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) to allow authors to pay USD 750 for expedited peer review by a private company. Notwithstanding that this is trying to attempt to satisfy two incompatible goals - scientists are generally interested in the truth while private companies are only interested in their bottom line - this development should also ring alarm bells throughout the scientific community because there is no quality of service oversight apart from what the company in question, Rubriq, says. When privatising peer review, the process is no longer being overseen and controlled by the editor of the journal, but by a third party with a mandate that is not aligned with that of the scientists. This decision by NPG to allow fast-track, privatised peer review is not the first but it has caused some high-level editors at NPG to resign in protest. "My objections are that it sets up a two tiered system and instead of the best science being published in a timely fashion it will further shift the balance to well-funded labs and groups," Prof. Mark Maslin of University College London said in his resignation letter. Yes, peer review can be tedious, yes, some reviews are unfair, and yes, peer review has its shortcomings, and yes, some editors let it drag on for far too long without taking a stand, but when we receive a fair review we incorporate the reviewer's comments in our manuscripts, and when we do not we appeal for another. As scientists we all engage in peer review, which takes time for no additional pay, but we know that everyone else is also doing it, and so the system balances things out.
The second development is a more recent one in which BioMed Central - a well-known publication of peer-reviewed journals - had to retract at least 43 articles because of faulty peer review practises. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a multidisciplinary group that includes more than 9 000 journal editors, has released a statement. 'The COPE has become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers.' The fraud consisted of authors suggesting their friends who agree in advance to provide a positive review, to elaborate peer review circles where a group of authors agree to peer review each others' manuscripts, to impersonating real people, and to generating completely fictitious characters. Further investigation by the journal and editors found there is no apparent connection between the authors but there are similarities between the suggested reviewers, which suggests that a third party could be behind this sophisticated fraud. In short, the problem of fake peer reviewers is affecting the whole of academic journal publishing. However, rather than only trying to find the culprits responsible, it is also time to reflect on the process itself and whether this fraud is a manifestation of the times we live in. With researchers increasingly desperate for recognition, citations and professional advancement, and funding and long-term jobs becoming ever more elusive, it is not surprising that some young researchers decide if they cannot succeed by hook, then they attempt to do so by crook. It is generally known that playing by the rules does not increase one's chances of recognition and success. Indeed, it is those that do not obey the rules and instead draft their own and subsequently build something around their own rules that come out ahead of the pack. This does not endorse committing fraud, but it does suggest that peer review is ready for an overhaul.
As top-class scientists here at ELSI we should never succumb to our urge for a fast review and have our reviews outsourced to a public entity for a hefty price. It will only lower the quality of our work and the standards we aim to uphold in achieving our work. Similarly, as tough and annoying as it may be, we should strive to play by the rules while simultaneously making up our own, and suggest reviewers whom we trust, but whom can also give valuable critique of our work with the aim to improve it and remind us of things we may have overlooked. This includes having competitors be reviewers if they can be trusted to be fair (which is unfortunately not always the case). At the same time, we should be tough but fair and honest to our competitors when we review their papers. Then and only then can we aspire to belong to the top research institutes worldwide.