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Posted on April 2, 2015 at 12:04 AM

Peer review of scientific manuscripts has been around a long
time. There are apparently plenty of people who think something is not quite
right with peer review because they keep trying to change it. Specifically I am
talking about the peer review of manuscripts for publication. I have addressed
this subject periodically and new developments lead me to address this subject
again.

One new development is so called fast-track peer review.  This type of review is being adopted by at least one journal
of the prestigious Nature Publishing Group,
Scientific
Reports
. The publisher has contracted with a private peer review company,
Rubriq.
  Authors submitting papers to Scientific Reports can opt to have their
manuscript review fast tracked as long as they are willing to pay $750 to cover
the costs. Rubriq in turn pays the peer reviewers $100 per manuscript to review
the manuscript quickly. Imagine that, a faster publication, something every
scientist aspires to is now available to those willing and able to pay more.
This sounds disturbingly like a two-tiered system based on economic resources.
I am also a bit jealous that I did not get paid to review all those manuscripts
over the last forty years. The perverse component of this scheme is that it
makes what was always a volunteer activity into one that now consumes limited
research resources.

Increasingly journal editors turn to suggestions from
submitting authors or the articles referenced in their manuscript to identify
appropriate peer reviewers. This has become increasingly prevalent as the
number of manuscript submissions increases. 
This, in turn, has led to organized efforts to
cheat peer review.

Certain scientists are suggesting friends who have agreed to
give favorable reviews or even fictitious names which lead to friend or even
themselves. This seems to have been concentrated in China but does not appear
to be restricted to that country. Clearly it is increasingly challenging to
find qualified and objective peer reviewers for the abundant scientific
manuscripts submitted. However, it seems appropriate that editors at least make
sure that they send manuscripts to real people.

This month has also seen a judicial decision handed down in
the first legal challenge to PubPeer. PubPeer is the vehicle used for interested parties to
provide post-publication review of published manuscripts. This mechanism allows
nearly all scientists to comment on nearly all publications. They get to do so
anonymously.
  A pathologist at Wayne
State University sued PubPeer after comments posted there apparently led to withdrawal
of the offer of a lucrative and prestigious position at the University of
Mississippi. The suit asked PubPeer to identify the anonymous commenter who had
indicated that there was research misconduct. The American Civil Liberties
Union defended PubPeer as a freedom of speech issue. PubPeer won the case and
will be permitted to maintain the anonymity of their post-publication reviews.

I rather liked the days when there was one peer review
system for everyone, when editors identified real people to be reviewers, and
when one did not like a published manuscript they published one of their own in
response. Or maybe I am just becoming a cranky old man?

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

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