Red pen on paper with corrections

Reviewing your supervisor’s work?

There was a blog post recently over at Peer Review Watch, reporting on a small scale survey among postgraduate students in City University London, regarding their views on peer review. In one of the questions, participants were asked how they would feel about providing peer review for papers submitted by their supervisors. The responses, I am afraid, reveal a very troubling lack of understanding of ethics of the peer review process. 

To begin with, I was very surprised that the overwhelming majority of respondents (87%) felt comfortable reviewing such work, despite what is – to me at least – a very clear conflict of interest. COPE guidelines, for instance, clearly stipulate that conflict of interest may arise when the reviewer and the author work at the same institution, if they are (or have recently been) in a recent mentor-mentee relationship or if they have worked in the same project. Similar recommendations are made by in just about every set of guidelines I am aware of (e.g., the US Office for Research Integrity,  Elsevier), and for good reasons, too: personal bias is hard to identify, let alone eliminate even if one has the best of intentions. Plus, the perception of bias, even if unjustified, can have reputational repercussions for the author, the reviewer and the journal.

An argument could be made that a conflict of interest does not necessarily disqualify a competent reviewer, especially when appropriate expertise is hard to find, but it is hard to imagine a discipline so small and so insular where an author’s work can only be understood by their current students. Even in such an extraordinary scenario, one would imagine that reviewers should at least feel some unease at being faced with conflict of interest, but the evidence in this survey disturbingly suggests otherwise.

The qualitative comments provided by some students also cause some concern. Several respondents seem to have suggested that they would be happy to provide review on condition of anonymity.  Such responses reveal a certain degree of innocence about the peer-review process. Some respondents might be surprised to find that academics who routinely read their students’ written work and are familiar with their strengths and proclivities, will be able to make an educated guess about the reviewer’s identity. 

What is even more disconcerting, though, is rationale that seems to underpin some of the responses, of which the following is a typical example:  “I do not want my supervisor to know I critisise [sic] him”. Personally, I think it is troubling that future academics seem hesitant to provide formative feedback while a paper is still being drafted, and they only feel qualified to point out a paper’s shortcomings behind the author’s back. I feel compelled to call into question whether this is the kind of academic culture that we want universities to foster.

What all this seems to suggest, to me at least, is an urgent need to educate developing researchers in the ethics surrounding publication. It seems necessary to raise such students’ awareness of when critical engagement with a paper is valuable, and when it has the potential to harm the authors and the perceived integrity of the peer review process.


Image credit: Jenny Kaczorowski @ Flikr | CC BY-NC-SA


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