Last year at an ASAPbio meeting on peer review, one discussion centered around the role of early career researchers (ECRs) in peer review, and particularly how frequently ECRs contribute to peer review behind the scenes. This was fueled by a survey in eLife, a journal publishing life sciences research, indicating that 92% of those surveyed had undertaken reviewing activities, but more than half had done so without the assistance of their advisor. Dr. Gary McDowell (FoR Executive Director) and Dr. Rebeccah Lijek (former FoR BoD member and faculty member at Mount Holyoke College) led workshops discussing the reasons for, and questions about, the likely unrecognized involvement of ECRs in the peer review process.

Those conversations inspired a year-long project to collect data on how frequently ECRs contribute to peer review when they are not the invited reviewer (“co-review”), and how commonly ECRs co-review without being acknowledged to the journal editorial staff (“ghostwrite”). Results and recommendations have now been published as a preprint here at bioRxiv. You can also read an article about the preprint in Physics Today.

1,952 publications in the peer-reviewed literature were evaluated though an exhaustive search and no previous studies about ECRs ghostwriting peer review reports were found. 498 researchers were then surveyed about their experiences with, and opinions about, co-reviewing and ghostwriting as ECRs. This found:

  • 3/4 of those surveyed have co-reviewed and most find it to be a beneficial (95% agree) and ethical (73% agree) form of training in peer review;

  • co-reviewing is the second most commonly reported form of training in peer review besides receiving reviews on one’s own papers;

  • 1/2 of those surveyed have ghostwritten a peer review report, despite the 4/5ths majority opinion that ghostwriting is unethical;

  • 3 barriers to including co-reviewer names on peer review reports are a lack of communication between PIs and ECRs, a false belief that co-authorship is for manuscripts but not peer review reports, and prohibitive journal policies that are out of alignment with current practice and opinions about best practice.

The preprint summarizes these data along with recommendations for how to discourage unethical ghostwriting and encourage co-reviewing as training in peer review. Authors are now preparing a research article reporting the data and opinion piece summarizing our recommendations.

To help with this effort, please do feel free to contact the authors, comment on the preprint, or discuss online on Twitter using #ECRPeerReview to give comments and feedback. Stay tuned for future blogposts discussing some of the data and preliminary findings that are not in the paper, and keep checking our ECRPeerReview resource page for further updates.