The practice of journal editors anonymously reviewing papers must end, according to Irene Hames, Committee on Publication Ethics council member and coordinator of its new guidance on peer review.
Launching the guidelines at Cope’s European Seminar 2013 in London on 22 March - the day they were published - Dr Hames said that when she told researchers that editors sometimes surreptitiously submitted their own reviews when they were struggling to find referees, “their mouths drop open and they are totally disillusioned”.
She said the issue had provoked the most controversy when a draft version of the guidelines was put out for consultation earlier this year. Some respondents opposed Cope’s view that editors must acknowledge when they have written a review, arguing that it could slow or stymie the peer- review process.
But Dr Hames, former managing editor of The Plant Journal, said that Cope’s council - made up of senior figures from academia and publishing - felt “quite strongly” that negative perceptions of the practice meant editors “can’t do this any more”.
“The reason editors shouldn’t be given the same anonymity as other reviewers is that there is nobody to oversee and evaluate them,” she said.
“It is a deception of the authors. I have come across editors who have almost boasted about it and said: ‘I never have a worry about finding reviewers because I just do it myself.’ That, to me, is shocking.”
The guidelines say that editors must indicate when they have written one of the reviews.
Dr Hames said the COPE Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers were drawn up amid increasing scepticism “in the scholarly publishing world and beyond” about the efficacy of peer review, and revelations about journals’ failures to detect fake peer reviews submitted by authors.
Although the guidelines were intended to command broad agreement and to be applicable across all disciplines, their detail reflected Cope’s desire to provide guidance in specific situations.
This was seen as particularly important given that so few peer reviewers had any training and that the process often involved a “power struggle” in which junior researchers sometimes felt obliged to review manuscripts on behalf of their bosses despite receiving no credit.
Dr Hames said another requirement in the guidance that had been resisted by some consultation respondents was that of principal investigators having to obtain journals’ permission to involve anyone else in reviewing a manuscript, and for that person to be credited by the journal, which would give junior researchers something to “point to” when they felt put upon.
Recognition of the relative powerlessness of junior researchers also accounted for the committee’s rejection of the proposal that reviewers be required to sign their reviews. The guidelines say that, when permitted by the journal, reviewers should identify themselves only if they feel “comfortable” doing so.
Other contentious issues included whether reviewers should be required to reveal that they have already reviewed a manuscript for another journal (the guidance says they should not) or if they become aware of the identity of a manuscript’s authors during double-blind peer review (only where it “raises any potential conflict of interest”).