A large proportion of graduate students and postdocs ghostwrite peer reviews for senior colleagues and supervisors, receiving no professional credit for their work, finds a study1.
Co-authors of the article, which was posted on the preprint server bioRxiv on 26 April, surveyed 498 early-career researchers at institutions in the United States (74%), Europe (17%), Asia (4%) and elsewhere to assess how often junior scientists contribute to such reports and how they feel about them. Half of survey respondents said that they had ghostwritten a peer review, but 80% of those said that they felt the practice was unethical, according to the article.
The survey took pains to distinguish ghostwriting from co-reviewing, a well-established form of training in which an invited reviewer shares a manuscript with junior researchers to solicit their assessment of the paper’s quality; those researchers can expect to receive some type of credit for their efforts. With ghostwriting, by contrast, a principal investigator (PI) uses part or all of a junior researcher’s review contributions and provides no credit. Roughly 75% of survey respondents said that they had co-reviewed; 95% found it to be a beneficial practice and 73% deemed it ethical.
“Co-reviewing and ghostwriting get conflated, and one is used to justify the other as a normal part of training,” says study co-author Rebeccah Lijek, a molecular biologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. “But they are separable; some can be done as training exercises and some deserve named credit.” She says that senior researchers have expressed disbelief that ghostwriting is a widespread practice, whereas early-career researchers in the study indicated no surprise at all.
Sabina Alam, associate editorial director of medicine and health journals for Taylor & Francis Group, an academic publisher based near Oxford, UK, was also unsurprised. As journal editors, she says, “we know it happens.” Alam adds that she was pleased to finally see data quantifying the practice. “This form of ghostwriting has to be brought out of the shadows,” she says. “Not knowing who has had a hand in writing the review is totally unethical. It’s a system we’ve allowed to continue for too long.”
Alam notes that ghostwriting breaches the confidentiality of peer review. “Editors make publishing decisions based on reviews and on an understanding that the person they invited wrote the review,” she says. And journal editors make great efforts to find the most appropriate manuscript reviewers; they do not expect reviewers to share manuscripts, unless the journal explicitly says that it is acceptable for a colleague to co-review. Both co-reviewing and ghostwriting can pose ethical issues beyond the absence of credit, she adds. “If a researcher wants to co-review, let the editors know — preferably before you ask a junior colleague — so we can make sure the person is a good fit, free of conflicts of interest.”
David Resnik, a bioethicist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, says that ghostwriting can even be considered a form of plagiarism. “Under the federal research regulations, misconduct applies not only to publishing research but also reviewing research,” he notes.
Beyond misrepresentation, the lack of academic credit short-changes the junior researcher or ghostwriter in intangible ways. For example, peer review gives early-career scientists an opportunity to become known to journal editors, says Resnik. Reviewing papers, he adds, can build a graduate student’s or postdoc’s reputation; it can lead to an invitation to join a journal’s editorial board, and can serve as a form of networking that can help to advance a career. “The idea that credit for peer review is not important doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” says Resnik. Alam agrees: “This is scholarly work at the end of the day, and should be recognized,” she says.
The report laments that there is “no systematic way of training people to do peer review”. Yet it is pivotal to the scientific enterprise, notes co-author Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, an advocacy group for junior researchers that is based in Abington, Massachusetts. “We need more establishment of best practices of peer review,” adds Resnik. “Peer review is one of the most important aspects of scientific research [and it] just does not get enough attention in terms of ethics, objectivity and fairness.”
Alam says that the study could help to catalyse long-needed changes to the peer-review process. Both she and Resnik agree with the study’s recommendation that journals revise their policies to explicitly ask for the names of co-review contributors. McDowell suggests that greater transparency would benefit the scientific enterprise as a whole — for example, by legitimately increasing the pool of reviewers, who are often in short supply. “Journals are going to have graduate students and postdocs doing this regardless; they just won’t be known,” says McDowell.
McDowell and Lijek encourage PIs and early-career researchers to clearly discuss their expectations regarding co-reviewed reports and the apportioning of credit. Resnik agrees: “I would advise PIs to not involve other people in the review of a paper without permission from the editors, and without a clear understanding from the person involved about how they will be credited for their work.”
Alam advises early-career researchers who are eager to write peer reviews to ask their PI for opportunities to do so, as well as for feedback on their efforts; they should also ask their PI to let journals know about their contributions. Then, she says, junior researchers should take necessary steps to verify their contributions on Publons, an online database through which academics can track and highlight their peer-review and editorial contributions. That way, the junior researchers can build their profiles as peer reviewers.
Lijek says she hopes that this study will arm junior researchers with evidence that they can use to advocate for credit for their contributions. “It may sound cheesy and naive, but we want peer review to be the best it can be,” she says. Ultimately, she says, the problem can be resolved. “We all agree — we need to fix it.”
McDowell, G. S., Knutsen, J., Graham, J., Oelker, S. K. & Lijek, R. S. Preprint at bioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/617373 (2019).