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The ethics of academic peer-review: Some tips and best practices

Academia is an industry of peers. We review each other’s work and (hopefully) we seek to raise the standard for writing, for research design, for methodological advances, and for theoretical development. I peer-review anywhere from 10 to 50 manuscripts per year, at least one book manuscript per year, and I sit on four editorial boards (all of them internationally recognized journals). All of the journals I peer-review for (and I submit my own work to) use the double-blind method, although if you know the field well enough, you can certainly guess who wrote which manuscript.

Doing research

Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing some pretty bad practices in the peer-review process. Not only the extremely lengthy time that journals take to process manuscripts (2 years? seriously?!) but in some cases, editors and reviewers communicate in a rather harsh, nasty and unbecoming-of-a-reputed-scholar manner. I have complained about this on Twitter quite a few times. As I’ve said before, I know for a fact I’m a tough reviewer, but I’m never an unfair one, nor do I write nasty reviews.

Given that I conduct peer reviews on a regular basis (at least one every month, and sometimes once a week), I thought I’d provide some tips and best practices on peer-review.

1. You can be a rigorous reviewer without being a nasty one.

Remember, you are assessing the quality of the manuscript, not the author him/herself. You are supposed to evaluate how sound the methodology is, whether the research has been submitted elsewhere, if the theoretical grounding is there, and if the results are credible (and obviously, correct). Pat Thompson has a great post on this aspect.

2. Don’t accept to peer review manuscripts that fall outside of your area of expertise, nor should you force the author to read your own work if it doesn’t apply.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve received comments from peer reviewers who tell me “the author should have cited Professor X“. This commentary often unblinds the review because I know well (after a thorough literature review) that Professor X does NOT write about Topic Y (the one I wrote about). And it’s unethical do to so, anyways.

3. Do NOT sit on a review for months at a time. Review accurately and in a timely fashion. Or simply decline the review, if you do NOT have the time to do it in a timely manner.

peer review

Academic journals already suffer from a lack of timeliness. Papers that are ACCEPTED in 2012 sometimes are told that they will get published in 2014. I had a journal editor tell me “we have basically covered all of 2013 and 2014” by February 2012. If I am going to submit a manuscript with time-sensitive data, you can tell this is NOT the journal I am going to send my work to, even if it is a solid outlet.

4. If you have questions about how to conduct a peer review in an ethical manner, ASK.

I started peer-reviewing when I was finishing my Masters’ degree, so I have had quite a few years of practice, but whenever I needed advice, I always turned to senior scholars. I am posting here some resources here that I really enjoyed reading.

- The Four Jobs of a Peer Reviewer.

- Ethics of Peer Review – A Guide for Manuscript Reviewers.

- Committee on Publication Ethics – Ethical Guidelines for Peer Review.

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