Reflect on your own
What are our ethical obligations and responsibilities as peer reviewers?
How can we balance the risks of bias and the advantages of expertise as peer reviewers?
What measures can we take to protect the confidentiality of privileged documents?
In addition to conducting our research, we also share responsibility in evaluating and critiquing the work of our peers. The peer-review process is both a quality control mechanism and is critical to the research process.
Journal editors and funding agencies depend on the peer review process to decide which manuscripts to publish and whose proposals to support. The quality of these decisions relies heavily on the quality of peer review. Providing quality peer reviews require us to have the necessary expertise to assess the work fairly, have the capacity to complete reviews on time, ensure impartiality by disclosing all conflicts of interest, protect the confidentiality of privileged materials shared as part of peer-review processes and provide constructive criticism to improve the quality of research. We should also model ethical peer review and make our ethical obligations explicit when we are mentoring trainees to responsibly engage in their own peer review.
Failure to disclose conflicts of interest, maintain confidentiality and protect the integrity of the peer-review process constitutes a serious form of scholarly misconduct. Consequences may range from removal from the peer review process, loss of research funding, or even legal action from the individual(s) whose privacy rights have been compromised.
Each researcher has a vested interest to preserve trust and uphold the ethical standards of peer review.
Disclose all real, perceived or potential conflicts of interest
Real, perceived, or potential conflicts of interest compromise the value of our review and undermine confidence and trust in our peers, as well as the public’s trust in us as researchers. It is important to analyze our own biases as well as private, professional, financial, or public interests to determine whether we can remain and be perceived as impartial. We are responsible for disclosing our conflicts of interest and for declining to participate in a peer review when there may be an apparent conflict of interest.
During a peer-review process, the documents under review are confidential and should be treated as such. Store the privileged materials in a secure place, do not use the information to advance other research, avoid discussing the review or its outcomes with others who are not involved in the peer review, and, once our review is complete, destroy or return the documents in a secure manner. If you intend to involve a trainee in the review of a manuscript, you must seek and obtain permission from the journal first.
Uphold professional accountability
We are responsible for preparing a timely, clear, and accurate review that includes constructive feedback and suggestions that can help improve the research. Furthermore, we are responsible to ensure that our suggestions and feedback are impartial and that they don’t unfairly influence the writer to cite our work.
Not leaving sufficient time to complete our review
Reviewing manuscripts and grant proposals requires critical thought. We may misjudge our capacity to participate in the review and unintentionally delay the process. It is unethical to conduct only a superficial review following a cursory reading, as the peer-review process is critical to improving the quality of research. Proactively schedule a time to conduct your review within reasonable deadlines or reach out to the editor or adjudication committee to explore alternatives as soon as you realize that you cannot complete your review on time.
Consulting colleagues for help with the review without first seeking appropriate permissions
Before seeking advice from colleagues on a peer review, we should ensure that we have the explicit permission of the journal or funding agency to do so. This helps ensure the confidentiality of the work and preserves the integrity of our peer review. When in doubt, seek guidance and/or permission from the journal or granting agency first.
Allowing ourselves to be influenced by our own biases
The peer-review process is inherently subjective and prone to biases. For example, it’s been well documented that researchers often unintentionally show a preference for statistically significant results. We are also less likely to criticize work that is consistent with our views and/or dogma. We must be aware of our biases to reduce the potential for unfair judgements and assessments of the work. Always declare potential conflicts of interest and seek out training on unconscious biases to further enhance the integrity of the process.
- Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers, COPE Council
- Ethics of Peer Review: A Guide for Manuscript Reviewers, Yale University
The developed content is adapted from the following:
- Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. (2013). Conflicts of Interest and Confidentiality Policy. Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada.
- COPE Council. (2017). Ethical guidelines for peer reviewers.