Best Practices for Peer Reviewer Selection and Contact to Prevent Peer Review Manipulation by Authors

Posted April 6, 2015  

The problem of manipulation of manuscript peer review by authors has recently surfaced (discussed here). Peer review manipulation, also referred to as fraudulent peer review, can be defined as subversion of the peer review process by an author or another person engaged on behalf of the author to deceive a journal editor into sending a peer review invitation, such that the authors or a third party related to them can determine or control the contents of the review. The following statement addresses the selection and process of contacting peer reviewers with specific reference to avoiding peer review manipulation, based on the cases identified to date. It does not address the peer review process comprehensively (WAME’s general recommendations regarding peer reviewers are available from here and here).   

The discovery of peer review manipulation has resulted in many retractions (see discussion). In many of these instances, authors had recommended peer reviewers, either real experts in the field of their work or imaginary persons, with fake reviewer email addresses that were controlled by either the authors themselves or a third party associated with, or hired by, the authors. The editors used the authors’ suggested reviewers, including emails, and were thus deceived into sending reviewer invitations and links for submission of peer reviews to these email addresses, enabling authors or a third party related to them to submit or control reviews of their own manuscripts.    

WAME recommends that, ideally, an editor should only use author-suggested reviewers if the editor is already familiar with the reviewers and their potential conflicts of interest and has their contact information in the journal database. Peer review of a manuscript should include at least one reviewer not suggested by the author. However, WAME recognizes that editors, at times, face challenges in finding peer reviewers for manuscripts, particularly in small, specialized fields, and may find author suggestions for reviewers helpful. WAME recommends that, in such situations, editors take the following steps to avoid peer review manipulation. Best practices for appropriate selection of reviewers for valid peer review are also provided.  

Peer Reviewer Selection Best Practices  

Editors should make every effort to find expert reviewers in the topics(s) addressed in the manuscript who are free of significant conflicts of interest. These efforts include the editors’ own expertise, and use of electronic databases, manuscript reference lists, editorial board recommendations, journal database searches, and the like. For highly specialized areas, chairs of departments and the like may have suggestions as to faculty with expertise. To avoid inviting peer reviewers with significant conflicts of interest, editors generally should exclude from consideration: (a) individuals who have coauthored manuscripts with the authors in the recent (e.g., 10 years) past, (b) individuals who work at the same institution as the authors, particularly if they are in the same area as an author or the institution is small, and (c) individuals who have other conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, for or against the paper (for a discussion of conflicts of interest see here). If editors make exceptions to these general principles when inviting reviewers, they should keep in mind the exception and its potential implications for the reviewer’s recommendations. Potential reviewers should be asked to recuse themselves prior to accepting a peer review invitation if they have a conflict of interest for or against the manuscript or if they are otherwise unable to review the manuscript objectively. Reviewers who agree to review and then discover a potential conflict should contact the editor. Every peer-reviewed medical journal should have its own Conflict of Interest policies for authors, reviewers, and editors that are publicly available and these should be provided to potential reviewers (see here). Journal peer review systems should include a step asking the reviewers to report their potential conflicts of interest, requesting explanation and preventing review without editor intervention if reviewers answer in the affirmative.  

Avoiding Selection of Fraudulent Peer Reviewers  

  1. Editors should avoid using only author-recommended peer reviewers to review a paper.
  2. Editors should not use an author-recommended reviewer unless the person’s contact information is obtained from an independently validated source, e.g., from the reviewer’s publications or referred by a member of the Journal’s editorial board. Note that email addresses with top level domains such as .edu are more likely to be reliably linked to the correct individual than those with other less tightly controlled domains (e.g., gmail or yahoo accounts). However, editors should not require reviewers to use their .edu or other professional email addresses because some institutions may not have reliable email access, particularly in low or middle income countries, and their faculty may prefer to use non-institutional email addresses. [In these limited cases, Editors may want to encourage potential reviewers to include the non-institutional email address on their institutional Web page]. Editors should consider applying similar diligence to reviewer-suggested reviewer names and emails.  
  3. ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) identification numbers are a possible mechanism for helping to validate reviewer identity and contact information. Editors should encourage reviewers to enroll in ORCID, while being alert to the possibility of misrepresentation of ORCID identification numbers.  
  4. If the editor determines that an author has supplied a reviewer email address that is not correct, then the editor should ask the author for an explanation. Merely supplying an incorrect email address (e.g., with a typo or an outdated email address) does not imply a deliberate intent to deceive or manipulate. If the email address appears to have been submitted with intent to deceive the editor as to the address's owner, then the editor should take additional steps depending on the source of the deception, such as contacting the author’s institution.   

Detecting Fraudulent Peer Review  

Editors should remain alert to the possibility of peer review manipulation, especially if reviewer comments are submitted extremely rapidly or the review is extremely positive and superficial. In such cases, it may be helpful to invite an additional, independent review, or to redouble efforts to check the identity and contact details of the suggested reviewer.

While these recommendations are intended to help prevent the problem of fraudulent peer review, other methods to subvert peer review undoubtedly will be developed. Editors should be appropriately skeptical of potential new sources of reviewer names and contact information.  

Approved by the WAME Ethics and Policy Committee (21 January 2015).