Conflict of Interest in Peer Review

Handing a magnifying glass: Editors invite reviewers to examine a submitted paper, but when they ask for a review of a resubmission, it can produce a conflict of interest.

Last week I shared my ethical concerns about the harm produced by our journal peer review system in the organizational sciences. Authors have to spend inordinate amounts of time dealing with idiosyncratic demands of reviewers in round after round of submission, often to be rejected. This has reached the point that it is fair to say the system is unethical. But there is another ethical issue and that is conflict of interest in peer review when reviewers have made such substantial contributions to papers that they are no longer objective outsiders. In many cases, once the paper is revised, reviewers are reviewing their own work.

Three Roles of Peer Review

As I discussed in my 2020 commentary for the SIOP publication Industrial and Organizational Psychology, there are three roles that peer reviewers can play in the development and publication of a paper.

  • Gatekeeper: The traditional role of a peer reviewer for an academic journal is to render an opinion about the publishability of a submitted manuscript. As an editor, I found the private comments to the editor to be the most useful where reviewers would tell me whether or not the manuscript is worthy of publication and the reasons for that judgment.
  • Developmental: Book publishers sometimes employ developmental editors to assist authors in refining their ideas and honing their writing. Such editors do not create content, but rather assist the author in expressing ideas in a clear and logical way. This is more than copy editing that is intended to correct grammar and typos. Some of what modern peer reviewers do can be considered developmental editing when they make suggestions that improve the writing, such as reorganizing the introduction, including examples, and rewriting for better flow.
  • Coauthor: Too often peer reviewers today cross the line from developmental editor to behind the scenes coauthor, or what Art Bedeian referred to as ghost writer. This goes beyond making the paper easier to read, as peer reviewers dictate theoretical frameworks, hypotheses, methods, analyses, and conclusions. Given the power differential authors are compelled to comply, even when they disagree with reviewer demands.

Conflict of Interest in Peer Review

There is a good reason that peer review for a journal is normally performed blind–the reviewers are not told the identity of the authors. This reduces personal bias and conflicts of interest that can arise if reviewers have a history with one or more of the authors. In many cases, however, a reviewer has made so much contribution to a paper that they are unnamed coauthors. If the revised paper is returned for them to review a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) time, they are no longer disinterested third parties. They might not be getting coauthorship credit if the paper is published, but likely they are delighted at the prospect of their ideas seeing light of day. This means their judgment is compromised. There is a conflict of interest.

A conflict can arise even if the reviewer has not made a coauthor-worthy contribution. If I as a reviewer advise the editor to reject the paper because of stated weaknesses, how might I feel if months later I am sent the paper to review again? Can I really provide an objective opinion of the revised paper? Likely, I will be annoyed because the editor ignored my recommendation and is asking me to take a second look. Will I be able to look past the perceived slight, or will I dig in my heals and find even more to complain about in the paper? Or will I just go with the flow, accept that it is the editor who makes the decision, and just say the paper is fine?

Solving the Conflict

There is a simple solution to avoiding the conflict of interest in peer review. Editors should not send revisions back to reviewers. Rather editors should handle revisions themselves. Their revision invitation letters should make clear what needs to be done based on the reviewer feedback. The authors should incorporate the feedback, and explain in a separate response document how they dealt which each point, just as they typically do. The editor should read the revised paper and response document and render a decision. In some cases there might be a need for additional revisions, which would be explained by the editor and incorporated by authors.

Some editors might feel that it is the responsibility of the journal to provide developmental editing, certainly a worthy service. This should be handled as a separate paper-development system divorced from gatekeeping. Journals could allow authors to submit papers for developmental review where feedback would be provided. This would be a one-time submit and get feedback without a back-and-forth, submit-and-resubmit. There would be no judgement rendered on publishability for that or any other journal. It is only feedback–a formalized system of friendly review. The author would be free to accept or reject any recommendation before submitting to a journal because there is no power differential. Individual journals might provide this service, or societies like Academy of Management or SIOP might provide it unattached to particular outlets.

There are serious ethical concerns with the current peer review system in the organizational sciences. We see unintended negative consequences of reviewer unavailability, practitioner reluctance to publish their work, and talented researchers choosing not to pursue academic careers. It is past time that we began serious discussions about reforms to our journal peer review system.

Photo by Clement Nivesse from Pexels

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1 Reply to “Conflict of Interest in Peer Review”

  1. Well-said follow-up to the previous blog devoted to ethical concerns in peer review. The concerns expressed in this blog and the previous blog extend beyond I-O psychology. –Irvin

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