As anyone who follows Retraction Watch or Scholarly Kitchen will tell you, peer review “match-fixing” is on the rise. Editors who allow authors to state their “preferred reviewers “ or “suggested reviewers” have seen peer-review processes undermined, as unscrupulous authors suggest seemingly legitimate reviewer names paired with bogus webmail addresses controlled by the author. The busy editor then invites the suggested reviewer to review, and thus authors are able to fraudulently review their own papers, boosting their chance of publication and potentially compromising the integrity of the literature.
The problem has now become such an unethical practice standard that Retraction Watch dedicates a whole channel to it, with more and more cases documented each month. A simple and obvious way to prevent this sort of abuse is to prevent authors from suggesting their own reviewers entirely; this change is simple to make, and your Managing Editor or Editorial Systems Coordinator would welcome the chance to discuss this option with you.
However, as academic life gets busier and good reviewers harder to find, just turning away from the use of author-suggested reviewers may not be an option for your journal. If this is the case for you, then the following administrative checks enable editors and journal administrators to significantly reduce the risk of system abuses.
Checking co-author names
When a new paper comes in for review you should first check that all authors named in the manuscript document are also listed in the manuscript record (or “metadata”) within your peer-review system. Corresponding authors are specifically asked to give this information during the submission process, but some do not complete the form correctly, or give incorrect or unresponsive email addresses, making a human check essential for reasons we have covered before on Taylor & Francis Editor Resources.
No matter which T&F or Routledge submission system you use, functionality will be built in to prevent editors from inviting listed co-authors to review their own papers. The same functionality also alerts editors if they are about to invite a reviewer from the same institution as a listed co-author, which could represent a conflict of interest, particularly if the two have regularly worked together in the past. However, if the co-author names have not been captured in the system, the functionality cannot do its job, and a co-author could potentially be invited to review his or her own paper.
Having the co-authors listed in the metadata at the top of each page will also keep the names fresh in your mind, so that if an author has suggested the esteemed Professor Robert Referee to review their manuscript, but at the incongruous email address firstname.lastname@example.org, you are more likely to spot the inconsistency and recognize the possible intent behind the use of a webmail address that shares the same name as the paper’s third co-author.
Checking suggested reviewer details
If you regularly invite author-suggested reviewers to peer-review for your journal, you should consider making use of the ScholarOne Manuscripts External Search functionality. This will enable you to link out to Web of Science, Web of Knowledge, PubMed, or Google to check that the academic suggested has actually published work in a relevant area. If a suggested academic has not published in an obviously linked area, then you must consider how this person is qualified to usefully comment on the work.
The External Searches also allow you to check if the suggested reviewer’s publications were associated with the same email address the author has supplied for them. If the suggested reviewer is relevant, but has previously published under an entirely different email address, then consider doing a little Internet research; a quick Google could show you that the reviewer recently changed institutions, but if not you can reduce risk by inviting the suggested academic to review via an email address they are more publicly associated with.
Inviting suggested reviewers via an institutional address, with a suffix such as .ac.uk, .gov, or .edu, is also a way to reduce the likelihood of system manipulation. Institutional addresses are far harder (though not impossible) to appropriate than a webmail address like gmail.com or yahoo.com, which can be started by anyone in any name, regardless of true identity. You can reduce the risk of system abuse substantially by only inviting reviewers registered at institutional email addresses.
If you already employ the practices described above when considering author-suggested reviewers, then the good news is that you are giving yourself the best chance to spot potential misconduct before it starts.
As these recent fake reviewer stings have shown us, lack of vigilance can result in serious public embarrassment for journal editors. Yet making just a few simple checks on email address and Google pedigree before an author-suggested reviewer is invited can go a long way to ensuring that your journal isn’t featured in Retraction Watch’s next post.