Table of Contents
- The importance of authorship
- Who is an author?
- Problems that arise in authorship
- What role does peer review play in the publication of articles and in grant applications?
- What are the potential problems in peer review?
Writing in his autobiography, the Nobel laureate François Jacob described how the process of science was actually quite different from what was eventually written and published in the peer-reviewed literature.1 He related how his research with Sydney Brenner and Matthew Meselsen initially had setbacks when they tried to identify a hypothesized intermediary molecule that took information from genes and allowed protein to be synthesized inside cells. He and his colleagues attempted, without luck, to show that the factor, which today we know as mRNA, attached itself to ribosomes, the cell's protein-manufacturing machinery. So one day, discouraged, Jacob said, he and Brenner took a break and went to a Pacific Ocean beach, where Brenner at some point exclaimed that magnesium was important for binding.
When the two returned to the laboratory, they added enough magnesium to their experiments and then showed the factor associated with ribosomes. Without sufficient magnesium, the mRNA would not attach to ribosomes. The scientists had provided evidence for the existence of mRNA, which we now know transcribes information from DNA into a language that ribosomes can understand. But the paper reporting the results, which appeared in Nature in 1961, was not a historical narrative of what happened. The scientific paper explained mRNA's binding to ribosomes as a function of the concentration of magnesium, without mention of the eureka moment at the beach.
Jacob compared the limitations of a scientific publication to capture the "truth" of the scientific process to a snapshot of a horse race. He said that scientific writing transforms and formalizes research and substitutes order for the disorder and agitation that animate life in a laboratory.
Although academic papers may not reflect the "reality" of the research process, peer-reviewed scholarly and scientific literature remains a key repository for the advancement of society's knowledge. Academicians and researchers submit their ideas and findings to journals. Journal editors and, generally, ad hoc peer reviewers for the journal then criticize the draft manuscripts, finding the strengths and weaknesses of the work. Based on the input, authors revise their writing, which ultimately gets published in a printed or, these days, online publication. For the authors of scholarly works, articles provide credit for promotions, grants, and recognition. Committees will review a publication record when considering tenure, funding for new research projects, and awards.
Once material is published in the literature, the world -- including other scholars, investigators, and the public -- has access to it. Professionals in a given discipline can then challenge or corroborate the new findings. Some ideas and results quickly become part of society's collective wisdom, while others remain controversial, challenging the status quo. Findings in medicine appearing in scientific publications are often reported in the media and have particular importance because the public will follow health recommendations based on such results. Indeed, scientists and academicians who obtain government funding for their work have a responsibility to the public to describe their findings.
As research has become more complex and multidisciplinary, the need for many different types of experts to perform biomedical and other kinds of studies has increased. Investigators today collaborate on projects with colleagues from across the country and around the world, working with senior scientists, clinicians, undergraduate and graduate students, technicians, postdoctoral fellows, medical students and residents, statisticians, and other professionals. Each brings different expectations and even cultural experiences to issues such as who should be included as an author on a paper for publication.
As François Jacob alluded, the process of writing, editing, and reviewing an article may not be as scientific as the research reported in the manuscripts. Problems can arise when people have different ideas about who should be an author on a paper. Some say that being accountable for the entire content of an article should be a minimal responsibility for an author whose name is on a paper. Others say that, given the multifaceted nature of research, one person might not be able to take full responsibility. Some feel that a clinician who provided the blood samples for a study, without which the research could not have been done, should be an author. Others feel that the clinician should receive an acknowledgment.
Journals usually have guidelines for authors regarding how they should submit a manuscript to the publication. But the process of responsible authorship begins before the writing of a manuscript, with good scientific study design and with researchers abiding by ethical guidelines regarding conflicts of interests and work with animals and human subjects. Another important aspect of authorship that should occur before the writing of the paper is for potential authors to know the policy of their laboratory, department, and institution with respect to what constitutes an author.
When a graduate student first comes to a laboratory, or a postdoctoral fellow or technician interviews for a job, or colleagues collaborate in a multidisciplinary project, a discussion about the practice of credit and authorship for research work should occur as soon as possible. Each party should have an understanding of what kind of work merits authorship, with the knowledge that, as the research project progresses, who is an author and the position of a name in a list of authors may change. Each party should also have an understanding of who among many authors will have primary responsibility for the writing, submission, and editing work required for a paper. First authorship is important in the biomedical sciences, because the first author's name is used by Index Medicus, the major biomedical periodical database, to cite the paper. But different disciplines assign different meanings to the placement of authors. The position of last author may be reserved for the principal investigator or department chair in some fields. In others, the senior person is first, with the last author having the smallest contribution.
A starting point for a discussion of authorship is the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines. In 1978, a small group of editors of general medical journals met informally in Vancouver, British Columbia, to establish guidelines for the format of manuscripts submitted to their journals. The group became known as the Vancouver Group. Its requirements for manuscripts, including formats for bibliographic references developed by the National Library of Medicine, were first published in 1979. The Vancouver Group expanded and evolved into the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, which meets annually. The ICMJE gradually has broadened its concerns to include ethical principles related to publication in biomedical journals. Over the years, ICMJE has issued updated versions of what are called Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals and other statements relating to editorial policy. The most recent update was in November 2003. Approximately 500 biomedical journals subscribe to the guidelines.
According to the ICMJE guidelines:
- Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.
- When a large, multi-center group has conducted the work, the group should identify the individuals who accept direct responsibility for the manuscript. These individuals should fully meet the criteria for authorship defined above and editors will ask these individuals to complete journal-specific author and conflict of interest disclosure forms. When submitting a group author manuscript, the corresponding author should clearly indicate the preferred citation and should clearly identify all individual authors as well as the group name. Journals will generally list other members of the group in the acknowledgements. The National Library of Medicine indexes the group name and the names of individuals the group has identified as being directly responsible for the manuscript.
- Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, alone, does not justify authorship.
- Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content.
- The order of authorship on the byline should be a joint decision of the co-authors. Authors should be prepared to explain the order in which authors are listed.
- All contributors who do not meet the criteria for authorship should be listed in an acknowledgments section.
Two major problems with the ICMJE guidelines are that many members of the scientific community are unaware of them and many scientists do not subscribe to them. According to Stanford University's Mildred Cho and Martha McKee, writing in Science's Next Wave in 2002, a 1994 study showed that 21% of authors of basic science papers and 30% of authors of clinical studies had no involvement in the conception or design of a project, the design of the study, the analysis and interpretation of data, or the writing or revisions. Actual practice, it seems, disagrees with ICMJE recommendations.
Eugene Tarnow, writing in Science and Ethics in 2002, reports findings related to the 1994 study. He cited a 1992 study of 1,000 postdoctoral fellows at the University of California, San Francisco, in which fewer than half knew about any university, school, laboratory, or departmental guidelines for research and publication. Half believed that being head of the laboratory was sufficient for authorship, and slightly fewer thought that getting funding was enough for authorship.
A study by Tarnow of postdoctoral fellows in physics in the 1990s also shows divergences from ICMJE precepts and points to other concerns about authorship in the sciences. Tarnow found that 74% of the postdoctoral fellows did not recognize the American Physical Society's guidelines or thought it was vague or open to multiple interpretations. Half the respondents thought the guidelines suggested that obtaining funding was sufficient for authorship, while the other half did not. The findings also revealed that in 75% of the postdoc-supervisor relationships authorship criteria had not been discussed; in 61% the postdoc's criteria were not "clearly agreed upon"; and in 70% of the relationships the criteria for designating other authors was not "clearly agreed upon."
Clearly, different laboratories have different practices about who should be included as an author on a paper. At some institutions, it is common for heads of departments to be listed as authors, as so-called "guest authors" or "gift authors," although they have not directly contributed to the research. At other institutions, laboratory heads would routinely include as authors technicians who may have performed many experiments but may not have made a significant intellectual contribution to a paper, while others would give a technician only an acknowledgment at the end of a paper. Some academic supervisors may have their graduate students collect data, do research, and write up results, yet not give them credit on a paper, while others will give authorship credit to students. Some foreigners in the United States may feel obligated to put mentors from their home countries on a paper even though they did not participate in the research.
Another problem with the ICMJE guidelines that has come up is that each author may not be able to take full responsibility for the totality of a paper. In an age of increasing specialization, one person knowing all the statistical analyses and scientific methodology that went into getting results may be unlikely. As a result, some journals, such as the British Medical Journal and Lancet, have turned away from the idea of an author and instead think in terms of someone who is willing to take responsibility for the content of the paper. The Journal of the American Medical Association also now requires authors to submit a form attesting to the nature of their contribution to a paper.
The British Medical Journal says that listing authorship according to ICMJE guidelines does not clarify who is responsible for overall content and excludes those whose contribution has been the collection of data. As a result, the journal lists contributors in two ways: it publishes the authors' names at the beginning of the paper, and lists contributors, some of whom may not be included as authors, at the end, and provides details of who planned, conducted, and reported the work. One or more of the contributors are considered "guarantors" of the paper. The guarantor must provide a written statement that he or she accepts full responsibility for the conduct of the study, had access to the data, and controlled the decision to publish. BMJ says that researchers must determine among themselves the precise nature of each person's contribution, and encourages open discussion among all participants.
With increased awareness of the issue, ICMJE now has in its guidelines a clause concerning contributorship: "Editors are strongly encouraged to develop and implement a contributorship policy, as well as a policy on identifying who is responsible for the integrity of the work as a whole."
Besides clarifying the issue of who is an author and who deserves credit for work, an author has many other responsibilities (what is listed below has been adapted from Michael Kalichman's educational material for the University of California, San Diego):
- Good writing: Authors must write well and explain methods, data analysis and conclusions so a reader can understand them and be able to replicate findings. Charts, tables and graphs must also be clear.
- Accuracy: Although every effort should be made to not have mistakes in a paper, be they in a footnote or from the research itself, unintentional errors creep in. Authors should be careful.
- Context and citations: The author needs to put research into appropriate context and provide citations in the manuscript that both agree and disagree with the work.
- Publishing negative results: If researchers never publish negative results, it creates a false impression and biases the literature. If results are not published from a drug trial, for example, that either shows a medication doesn’t work or has side effects, clinicians reviewing the literature could get the wrong idea about the medication’s true value. As a result, other researchers may continue with studies about a potentially bad drug.
- Conflicts of interest: Authors need to be cognizant of the potential for biases due to financial, intellectual and religious interests. Financial conflicts--such as stock in a company that would benefit from the result, honoraria, non-governmental research sponsorship--receive the most attention because they are the most obvious source of partiality. Many journals require a disclosure of potential conflicts of interest upon submission of a manuscript. For more information about conflicts of interest, see our conflicts of interest module
- Sponsorship: Private or government sponsors of research should be listed in a paper.
- Copyright law: Authors should be aware that publications usually own the copyright for a published article. Authors, therefore, need to get permission from publishers to reproduce their work.
- Duplicative publication: Putting the same data in two different papers could contribute to a bias in the literature about the findings. In clinical studies, readers might believe that a study had been repeated, giving the results too much weight. If an author wants to use data in multiple publications, it should be made clear to the reader. Journals also do not allow submission of a paper to two different publications simultaneously. Re-publishing material from an abstract is accepted, however, but journals require disclosure of such information. Also, publishing an article in a different language to reach a larger audience is allowable, if the author obtained permission from the first publisher and the second publisher acknowledges that the paper is a reprint.
- Fragmentary publication: Only an author can decide the right time to publish findings. Researchers may be driven to get into print soon with exciting findings but articles with early results may not be sufficient to flesh out the implication of the work. So called “salami” science puts burdens on editors, peer reviewers and readers to put the work in the right perspective.
- Intellectual property: Authors should be aware that if there are certain findings in a paper that could lead to a patent, technology transfer offices at institutions will take time to review data and may delay publication until a patent application is written.
- Dealing with the press : Authors should be cognizant of the fact that they may have to deal with the media, particularly when results have relevance for public health. Laboratories, departments and institutions have a variety of policies about how to work with the media and may even issue press releases about findings. Authors should know that journals often release material before publication to the members of the media, who are embargoed from releasing it to the public until a later time that usually coincides with the publication or online distribution date. When authors talk to members of the media, they should not overstate claims of findings. Authors also should inform patients who have participated in clinical trials, if findings will reach the public.
Conflicts about authorship have been increasing, research shows. According to a 1998 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Linda Wilcox, the ombudsperson at Harvard's medical, dental, and public-health schools, the percentage of complaints about authorship at the three institutions rose in the 1990s. Such grievances ranged from people feeling that they were not being given credit as first author, even though they were promised it, to people feeling that their work merited first authorship even though they merely performed experiments and did not design or write up the research. Wilcox's research found that authorship-related queries to her office rose from 2.3% of total complaints in 1991 to 10.7% in 1997. Between 1994 and 1997, 46% of the queries were from faculty and 34% were from postdoctoral fellows, interns, or residents.
Other studies, cited by Eugene Tarnow, point to the issue of plagiarism as a problem, too. A 1993 study looked at perceived misconduct in a survey of professors and graduate students in four disciplines over a period of five years. Inappropriate co-authorship was slightly greater than plagiarism as a problem. Plagiarism was a problem of graduate students, while inappropriate co-authorship was a problem mostly of faculty.
If a conflict arises between a junior scientist and a senior scientist regarding authorship, experts recommend that the disagreement should first be addressed within the group of authors and the project leader. Should that not lead to a satisfactory solution, the junior scientist can seek guidance from other members of the department, student organizations, representatives in an office of postdoctoral affairs, or the ombudsperson at the institution.
The ombudsperson is a neutral party who, if he or she is a subscriber to the standards of the national ombudsperson's organization, will discuss the situation and will not keep records of the conversation. The ombudsperson can discuss the concerns confidentially, help identify the issues, interpret policies and procedures, and offer a range of options for determining who deserves authorship or whether there are other issues. Interpersonal problems (such as personality problems between a senior scientist and a junior scientist), jealousy (such as regarding a new person in a laboratory getting the senior scientist's attention), and cultural issues (foreign scientists may have different criteria for authorship) may be factors in authorship disputes.
One of the options that the ombudsperson might suggest is mediation, in which the two parties meet with the ombudsperson and attempt to come to a mutual agreement. If negotiation and mediation fail to work, the injured party may then choose to make a more formal complaint with the dean's office, which would have a committee that investigates these kinds of issues.
Individuals must be able to distinguish between disagreements over allocation of credit and misconduct, Kathy Barker writes in Science's Next Wave in 2002. If someone has evidence of plagiarism, fabrication, or falsification of data, that is a more serious concern, and contacting a lawyer might be helpful as one proceeds to inform members of the institution about evidence.
Errors are not misconduct, but there are differing levels of mistakes and authors have certain responsibilities to correct the record, according to Michael Kalichman, of the University of California, San Diego. If unintentional, minor errors are found in a manuscript, the author should write the journal a letter describing the mistake, which is usually called an erratum. If the errors are serious enough to undermine the report, the authors should again write the journal and explain the errors as a "correction." But if the inadvertent errors are serious enough to completely invalidate the published article, or if misconduct has occurred, the authors should ask for a retraction of the paper. It is better to admit an error than to have someone else find it, Kalichman says. An admission of error is perceived as a sign of integrity and shows that the individual cares about the veracity of the literature.
Another accountability problem in authorship occurs when investigators hire a ghost author, according to Mildred Cho and Martha McKee. Pharmaceutical companies often hire ghost writers for clinical studies and others sign their names as authors. Busy investigators also employ medical writers to write up studies. A problem with a ghost writer is that he or she may not fully understand the underlying experiments and may not be able to explain the content of the work to other scientist co-authors or editors at a journal. Writing is a process that often helps an author to clarify what he or she is thinking. A ghost writer may dilute what is relevant, leading to possible mistakes. Ghost writers also take away the opportunity to train students or postdoctoral fellows to be authors.
Authors should not agree to give a sponsor the right of first approval of an article before publication. Indeed, Columbia University includes among its policies of intellectual property for faculty the statement "No agreement shall restrain or inordinately delay publication of the results of a Faculty member's University-related activities." (For more information, see http://www.stv.columbia.edu/guide/policies/app_I.html.)
A recent case that occurred between 1996 and 2002 at the University of Toronto, highlights the problem of signing away the right to publish the findings of a clinical trial without prior approval from the drug company that is sponsoring the trial. The case involved Dr. Nancy Olivieri, who was testing a drug for people with thalassemia, a disease characterized by the inability of the person to make one of the two proteins of hemoglobin, the blood's oxygen carrier. If not treated, the disease is usually fatal in childhood. The drug, an oral formulation, was meant to be an alternative to an injectable drug, already in use, that treats the iron buildup occurring after people with thalassemia get transfusions for their condition. Although the drug showed promise in the early 1990s, Dr. Olivieri had evidence in 1996 that patients taking the drug had dangerously high iron concentrations. Dr. Olivieri said that she reported the negative findings to the sponsoring company, which soon afterward withdrew funding for her trial and told her to stop speaking about or publishing her results. Although she had signed a nondisclosure agreement, Dr. Olivieri felt obligated to report her findings, since they would affect the health of patients, and she published her results in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1998. But her actions led to problems with the sponsoring company, which threatened her with legal action, and with the University of Toronto, which had fired her as a result of the controversial study. She was ultimately rehired, and the disputes between the university and the hospital where she worked were resolved in November 2002, with a confidential agreement.
To avoid similar situations that challenge academic freedom, researchers should not allow sponsors to have veto power over publication. The ICJME guidelines state:
Researchers should not enter into agreements that interfere with their access to the data and their ability to analyze it independently, to prepare manuscripts, and to publish them. Authors should describe the role of the study sponsor(s), if any, in study design; in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; and in the decision to submit the report for publication. If the supporting source had no such involvement, the authors should so state. Biases potentially introduced when sponsors are directly involved in research are analogous to methodological biases of other sorts. Some journals, therefore, choose to include information about the sponsor's involvement in the methods section."
After the invention of the printing press, in the 15th century, scientists started writing about their investigations in books, according to Adil E. Shamoo and David Resnick, writing in The Responsible Conduct of Research. The problem with books was that they took time to print. So scientists instead wrote letters, which soon became an important method for the transmission and recording of advances.
In the mid-17th century, French scientists, sponsored by the government, and British scientists, privately sponsored, began putting out journals, which were quicker to publish. The problem with journals, though, was that questionable papers began to be published. But Harry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society of London, which published the Philosophical Transactions of the organization, had a solution. Oldenburg, in the mid-17th century, began to be more selective in his choice of articles, and called on colleagues, some of whom were competitors of the authors, to give opinions about the worthiness of papers submitted for publication. The process of peer review in scientific literature thus began, giving articles treated in this way a stamp of authenticity and validity.
Although peer review has been used since the 17th century, it became more common in the 20th century. In 1937, the requirement of peer review for awarding grants from the National Cancer Institute was written into public law, according to Shamoo and Resnick. All major funding agencies today require peer review of grant applications, and a majority of journals require peer review of submitted manuscripts. Professional advancement is based on the ability to get articles published in peer-reviewed journals.
The process of peer review depends on the idea that, because much of academic inquiry is specialized, peers with similar expertise are often the best judges of the quality of work, according to UCSD's Kalichman. Who else but a researcher active in the field could evaluate the originality, methodology, and contributions of other investigators? Also, good review improves the quality of the grant application or paper.
Peer review of articles takes place after the manuscript is submitted to a publication. An editor may send the paper for review by members of the journal's advisory board or to a few external reviewers who have expertise in the subject of the article. Although the author's identity usually is known to the reviewer, the reviewer's identity is not known to the author. Peer reviewers are expected to provide the editor with a document that states the problem of the research, puts the research into perspective, notes whether appropriate credit has been given to the field, comments on the originality of the work, describes whether the research design is adequate for the conclusions written, and says whether the grammar is correct and the writing style understandable. Each reviewer sends comments back to the editor, who considers them and makes a determination as to whether the paper should be accepted as is, accepted with revisions, or rejected.
Peer review of grant applications follows a slightly different path. Investigators submit grant applications to funding agencies, usually in the government, and the agencies have committees, often with external reviewers, that assess the quality of the application. According to a General Accounting Office report about peer review in the government, government agencies differ in how they assess research at various stages, including which projects to fund, when they monitor projects, and how they evaluate projects before publication. (The National Institutes of Health will evaluate the work of intramural researchers before publication.)
The NIH has a double review of grant applications, the GAO report explains. The first level of review occurs in committees with members who have expertise in the subject of the application. More than 40,000 applications are submitted to the NIH each year, and each committee (there are about 100, with 18 to 20 members per committee) reviews up to 100 applications. The agency usually follows the recommendations of the committee in approving grant applications. Then there is a secondary level of review, by an advisory council, consisting of external scientists and lay members of the general public, including patient-group advocates and the clergy. Peer review of continuing grants occur at the same time as new projects.
The National Science Foundation uses the idea of merit as part of its peer review process, the GAO report says. Experts in the field review grant applications submitted to NSF and determine if the proposals meet certain criteria, including the intellectual merit of the proposed activity, such as its importance in advancing knowledge; the qualifications of the proposing scientist; and the extent to which the project is creative and original. The criteria also ask about the broader impacts of the proposal, including how it advances discovery while promoting teaching, and how it benefits society. How scientists fared in prior NSF grants are part of the evaluation. Proposals received by the NSF are reviewed by an NSF program officer and usually three to 10 outside NSF experts in the field of the proposal. Authors can suggest names of reviewers. Program officers obtain comment by mail, panels or site visits. Program officer recommendations are further reviewed by senior staff at NSF. A division director then decides whether an award is approved. Another decision is made at the division level and then at a higher level. Approved NSF grants run from one to five years and progress is reviewed by outside experts.
NSF has a Committee of Visitors that assesses an NSF program or cluster of programs and research results. NSF also is trying to measure the impact resulting from research it supports.
NSF has a history of supporting innovative research, not subject to external peer review, since some criticism of peer review argues that peer reviewers tend to support conservative approaches to science.
According to Michael Kalichman, of UCSD, a peer reviewer of an article or a grant application has several responsibilities:
- Responsiveness: Reviewers should be able to complete reviews in a timely fashion. Preparing research reports and grant applications takes an enormous amount of time, and delay could hurt the author or applicant professionally. If a reviewer cannot meet deadlines, he or she should decline to perform the review or should inform the appropriate party of a problem so that an accommodation can be made.
- Competence Reviewers should accept an assignment only if he or she has adequate expertise to provide an authoritative assessment. If a reviewer is unqualified, he or she may end up accepting a submission that has deficiencies or reject one that is worthy.
- Impartiality: Reviewers should be as objective as possible in considering the article or application and ignore possible personal or professional bias. If a reviewer has a potential conflict of interest that is personal, financial, or philosophical and which would interfere with objective review, he or she should either decline to be a reviewer or disclose any possible biases to the editor or granting agency.
- Confidentiality: Material under review is privileged information and should not be shared with anyone outside the review process unless doing so is necessary and is approved by the editor or funding agency. If a reviewer is unsure about confidentiality questions, he or she should ask the appropriate party.
- Exceptions to Confidentiality: If a reviewer becomes aware, based upon reading a grant application or a submitted manuscript, that his or her research may be unprofitable or a waste of resources, it is considered ethical to discontinue that line of work. The decision should be communicated to the individual requesting the review. (See Society of Neuroscience guidelines for communications on this issue) Every effort should be made to ensure that a reviewer is not taking advantage of information garnered through the review process.
- Constructive Criticism: Reviewers should acknowledge positive aspects of the material under review, assess negative aspects constructively, and indicate where improvements are needed. The reviewer should be an advocate for the author or candidate and help him or her resolve weaknesses in the work.
- Responsibility to Science: It is the responsibility of members of the scientific profession to engage in peer review even though they usually do not get any financial compensation for the work, which can be difficult. The benefit to reviewers is that they become more aware of the work of their peers, which can lead to collaborations.
Although peer review has been ongoing for more than 200 years, it has been the subject of criticism. Here are some criticisms:
- Reviewers may have biases that they are unable to disregard when they read a grant application or paper. Such biases can include disagreements with methods used in a paper or grant, dislike for an author's or applicant's institution, dislike of the author or applicant, and competition with the author or grant applicant.
- Peer review may not allow controversial or innovative research to enter into the literature or to be used as the basis for a grant application, because reviewers often subscribe to the prevailing paradigm.
- Peer reviewers may not be forthcoming in admitting financial conflicts of interest that they might have in reviewing a paper or grant application.
- Reviewers may not admit their lack of expertise in reviewing a paper or grant application.
- The peer-review process does not always find errors.
- Gender bias may occur in reviewing. Some studies show that female authors were accepted more by female reviewers than by male reviewers.
- Peer review does not prevent papers from getting published. Although an article might be rejected by one publication, a persistent author will get it published in another.
Most scientists acknowledge the problems with peer review but still believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Peer review often improves the quality of the research presented in a paper or grant application, although research about peer review of articles shows that it remains unclear who was responsible for the improvement: the editors, the peer reviewers, the associate editors, the biostatisticians who reviewed the work, or the author when revising the manuscript. The scientific enterprise has sustained itself using peer review for quite some time, given its faults, and very few breaches of ethical behavior have occurred. Researchers are aware of peer review's problems, and ask what the alternatives are to peer review. Having editors decide what should be published? Having the government decide who should be awarded grants? Having everything published without a way to distinguish between quality and nonsense? Awareness of the problems inherent in the process of peer review, such as the potential for bias or the appropriation of information, often helps people avoid falling victim to lapses in ethical action.
Until another method is developed, peer review remains the best way for experts to assess the quality of research to be funded or published. Those who perform it with integrity are fulfilling their obligations to the scientific community, according to Joe Cain, writing in Science and Engineering Ethics in 1999. Reviewers advocate for standards when they reject poor work and improve the field by giving constructive criticism and maintaining the knowledge base when they accept good work. Scientist reviewers also preserve professional authority when they decline to have the government review articles or use internal reviewers for external grant applications. Some suggest that being a peer reviewer should be given more credit, in a curriculum vitae or résumé, than it currently gets. With recognition, peer review's value would be greater appreciated.
If an author feels that a paper has been rejected undeservedly, he or she can write to the editor with concerns, which will be reviewed. There are appeals in the grant-application process, too. If someone feels that work has been appropriated during the peer-review process, then the author or grant applicant could seek legal representation and could contact the institution where the peer reviewer works. The institution will have an office that will deal with the alleged misconduct. Contacting the granting agency or the journal might be appropriate as well.
If a peer reviewer feels that he or she must use the information contained within a grant or an article, the reviewer may be able to contact the author or applicant and try to establish a relationship in order to develop a collaboration.
Given the criticism of peer review, there have been a variety of approaches to try to improve how it is done. One approach is to blind the reviewers to the author and the institution that he or she is reviewing. If successful, blinded peer review could remove any potential bias that might result from the reviewer's knowing the author. A 1990 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association about 123 consecutive manuscripts submitted to the Journal of General Internal Medicine revealed that the reviewers of blinded manuscripts could identify neither the author nor the institution 73% of the time. Reviews by blinded reviewers were judged to be of higher quality, in that reviewers were better able to judge the importance of the research question, to target key issues, and to critique methods.
Some critics, such as Fiona Godlee, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, suggest that having completely open reviews, in which the author knows the reviewer and the reviewer knows the author, would improve the peer-review process. Godlee argues that having the author know the reviewer would increase the accountability of the reviewer by providing less opportunity for unjustified arguments or misappropriation of data under the guise of anonymity. An open system would allow an author to notify an editor if a reviewer had a conflict of interest that the editor might not be aware of. A problem with an open review system, Godlee says, is that more reviewers might refuse to participate.
On the Internet, Godlee says, there is a trend toward more open reviewing. Scientists put unpublished research online, where the community comments on the work, such as with the high-energy-physics archive at Cornell University and the two journals Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics and Electronic Transactions on Artificial Intelligence. A published version of the paper then takes into account the online response, and may also include traditional anonymous peer review.
The Lancet in eResearch, the British Medical Journal in NetPrints, and BioMedCentral also offer authors the option of posting their work on a pre-print server while it undergoes peer review. On BioMedCentral, the precise form of peer review is left to those responsible for editorial control of the journals that participate. In some cases, including all the medical BMC journals, reviewers are asked to sign their reviews. The pre-publication history of each paper (submitted versions, reviewers' reports, authors' responses) is also posted on the Web, with the published article. PubMed Central is another Web-based repository, housed at the National Center for Biotechnology Information of the National Library of Medicine, in the NIH, which archives, organizes, and distributes peer-reviewed reports from journals in the life sciences and reports that have been screened but not formally peer-reviewed.
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