Monday, January 11, 2016

More evidence that the manuscript peer review process is broken

To the surprise of almost no one, asking authors of research papers to submit names of potential peer reviewers for their manuscripts turns out to be a bad idea.

According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine article by Dr. Charlotte J. Haug, a number of research papers have been retracted because reviews were fabricated. Email addresses of suggested peer reviewers were not legitimate. The bogus email addresses were almost all created by authors of papers who then reviewed their own work favorably using fake identities. 

More about the problem can be found on the blog Retraction Watch.

This type of fraud is simple to do because anyone can set up an email address on Gmail or Yahoo mail using any name. Unless a reviewer has an academic email address, proving legitimacy is impossible.

However even if a reviewer has an “edu” address, how would an editor know that a suggested reviewer is not the author’s sister-in-law or a former mentor?

Every medical student who applies for residency knows that you don’t ask someone for a letter of recommendation unless you are sure that it will be favorable. Why would an author take a chance on recommending someone to review a paper without knowing that the review would be a good one?

I agree with the Dr. Haug that soliciting the names of possible reviewers from authors can save editors time and bother. Having spent three years as an associate journal editor, I have experienced the frustration of trying to find high quality reviewers or even a warm body of any quality to do the job.

I also agree with her that a root cause of this problem is the pressure on faculty to publish.

Another problem is that there are too many journals. In 2014, well over 5000 journals and 760,000 papers were included in Medline. The combination of “publish or perish” and superfluous journals leads to the proliferation of marginal papers.

The problem is not simply fake reviews. Since journal reviewers are not paid and have many other responsibilities, they may not thoroughly read papers or provide useful comments about manuscripts.

Some have suggested paying peer reviewers, but who would pay them? Certainly not publishers, even though they make tons of money. And paying might attract unqualified people looking to make a little extra cash.

What about post-publication peer review? It is already happening on blogs, on sites like PubPeer, and even on PubMed. However, the volume of papers published in medicine alone certainly precludes post-publication review of all of them.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. New journals are appearing every day. Most are “open access” and the charge authors “processing fees.” For many of these publications, processing fees do not include even a cursory manuscripts peer review.

With so many journals publishing just about anything for the right price, readers will have to do their own peer reviewing. Be skeptical my friends. 

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