The peer review system of the world’s largest journal could be subject to widespread abuse by authors, editors and reviewers who fail to declare conflicts of interest, an academic has claimed.
Jamie Timmons, professor of systems biology at Loughborough University, said he had contacted the California-based PLoS ONE eight months ago with several examples of papers written by colleagues or collaborators of the academic editor who oversaw their acceptance.
A spokesman for PLoS ONE, which published 31,000 articles last year, said academic editors are approached by an automated system matching their expertise to the manuscript in question. However, authors were also free to suggest their own editors, who were typically placed at or near the top of the list of editors to be approached.
Authors, editors and peer reviewers were all obliged to declare any competing interests and, where necessary, reviewers and editors had to “recuse themselves”. The spokesman admitted the system was “based on trust”, but said the journal polices compliance with its conflict of interest policy and “takes seriously” any breaches.
Regarding the papers Professor Timmons had highlighted, the journal had followed its policy of asking another member of its editorial board to reassess them. In the case of one paper, the original publication decision had been endorsed, but the academic editor in question – José Calbet, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain – “is not handling any additional submissions as our investigations proceed”.
A comment posted by PLoS under the article explained this situation and similar comments had been posted on three additional papers that came to light during PLoS’ investigation, the journal’s spokesman said. Other papers were still being re-evaluated.
However, Professor Timmons said posting notes was “pointless” because very few people would read them. Nor would reassessing the original peer review reports be sufficient since a conflicted editor might have chosen “sympathetic” referees.
He also suggested that the size of PLoS ONE, which has about 5,000 editors and publishes everything judged to be scientifically sound, made it practically impossible to police conflicts of interest effectively. He suspected a more systematic search would uncover “hundreds or more” of examples of conflicts of interest.
“Given that it is certain that these editors and authors worked together in the past and present…it is certain PLoS ONE has a process problem with its peer-review system,” he said.
He called on PLoS to publicly acknowledge the problem and explain how it would investigate its extent. “As things stand, PLoS ONE can’t be considered a properly peer reviewed journal – not because others don’t have this problem but because you can prove PLoS ONE has [this problem] as it uniquely publishes the name of the editor on each article,” he said.
Professor Calbet said he had not realised that there was potential conflict of interest regarding the paper highlighted by Professor Timmons and had assumed that PLoS ONE’s editorial office would not have approached him if a potential conflict existed.
“But a potential conflict of interest does not necessarily mean wrong-doing,” he added. “The full process has been examined and…the editorial decision was considered fair and not biased.”