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The Importance of Ethical Peer-Review: Why Do We Ask Authors to Suggest Reviewers Anyway?

Are humans inherently evil, inherently good, or perhaps both? This is a question that philosophers have asked for many years and a question that intrigued one of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He concluded many are both, but also for the most part people are good. As an Editor-in-Chief, I am often faced with the same dilemma as I ask, are all authors unethical? This is especially important as Lipids has for years required each submission to include the names and e-mail addresses of four potential reviewers. What does this ongoing requirement mean in the light of the proliferation of stories regarding “fake peer-review” [13]?

First, I believe in the goodness of humanity and my experience has been that almost all authors are ethical and honest, but certainly there are some that are clearly dishonest and unethical. That said, how do I make this distinction, and how do our Senior Associate Editors (SAE) and Associate Editors (AE) make this distinction when it comes to the authors’ suggested peer reviewers? At Lipids, we use a variety of different mechanisms to protect the integrity of our peer-review process.

First, for years I have encouraged our SAE and AE to only use reviewers with an identifiable address at an institution of higher education, research institute, or a well-known company. I have asked these individuals to refrain from using suggested names with an easily obtainable e-mail address, e.g. a Hotmail or a Google address. In the end, we really do not know if the individual at the other end of such an address is an authenticate reviewer or merely someone’s good Uncle Vinny. Alternatively, someone could set up countless addresses for themselves under various aliases to conduct their own peer-review. Certainly, that would more than likely result in some stellar comments about the high level of quality found in the manuscript.

Second, if this does occur, it is absolutely prudent for the SAE, AE, and me to examine the reviewer’s comments and note if the comments are consistent with our observed quality of the given manuscript. In these instances, there is generally a radical discrepancy between the paucity of reviewer’s comments and the quality of the manuscript.

Third, I encourage SAE and AE to use their own reviewers as well as one or two of the suggested reviewers. This approach provides inherent checks and balances to the peer-review process. So perhaps diligence during the peer-review process is the best means to protect Lipids from potentially publishing a paper that has been vetted through an illegitimate peer-review process.

Is it truly fair to avoid using potential reviewers without an institutional e-mail address in our peer-review process? Certainly many of our colleagues in many countries around the world use Hotmail or Google addresses ethically, doing so because of the inherent reliability of these services, due to the limited IT resources at their institution, or for other prudent reasons. So, how do we distinguish between these individuals and those without scruples? Unfortunately, I do not see a mechanism that is not overly time consuming to make such a distinction. The peer-review process is already overly burdened, and adding additional checks and balances would not be an effective use of time and would place an additional burden on the peer-review process. Hence, the policy at Lipids will continue the requirement that authors submit the names of four potential reviewers, and the use of only what appear to be legitimate e-mail addresses, as well as other mechanisms that have been used for years to protect the integrity of our peer-review process.

Furthermore, an important question is, what is driving individuals to game the system? In my scientific ethics graduate class, an important exercise is a broad discussion by the students regarding why they think people commit scientific misconduct and other unethical acts. Every year, we put a long list on the board and talk about each item they bring forward, and then I ask them a simple question: why? They distill all of the reasons and come to a simple conclusion: People cheat due to pressure. Pressure is certainly something that has proliferated in the academic world, and many of our colleagues in less developed areas of the world have the same expectations of publishing their work in high quality journals, but may lack the resources to do so, which unfortunately creates a tremendous amount of pressure. Alternatively, young faculty looking to increase their publication numbers prior to an internal performance review or prior to their promotion and tenure year, may decide to game the system to ensure publication. But is this practice widespread? No, I do not think so, and it is relatively easy to determine if a suggested reviewer is more than likely legitimate. As such, it seems to me that altering our policy of requiring names and e-mail addresses of four potential reviewers would be a reaction based upon the concept that people are all inherently evil, which I refuse to endorse.

In the end, I have instituted the policy of requiring authors to submit the names of four reviewers at the time they submit their manuscript as a mechanism to give each and every author the opportunity to relay to us who they think the best reviewers for their work would be. After having this policy in place for over 8 years, I find that authors suggest individuals who are absolute experts in the area and who provide rigorous and fair reviews. Sure, some people take liberties with the system, but these instances are relatively easy to determine, and other reviewers are selected. Hence, as I believe that the bulk of authors are ethically behaving scientists, it seems prudent to continue to allow them to suggest potential reviewers and to continue to have faith that we can ferret out the handful of instances where individuals are unethical. Until proven otherwise, I will continue to believe that people are inherently good. I think Jean-Jacques Rousseau would agree.

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Correspondence to Eric J. Murphy.

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Murphy, E.J. The Importance of Ethical Peer-Review: Why Do We Ask Authors to Suggest Reviewers Anyway?. Lipids 50, 1165–1166 (2015).

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