1. Microbiology and Infectious Disease
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Research Culture: Co-reviewing and ghostwriting by early-career researchers in the peer review of manuscripts

  1. Gary S McDowell  Is a corresponding author
  2. John D Knutsen
  3. June M Graham
  4. Sarah K Oelker
  5. Rebeccah S Lijek  Is a corresponding author
  1. Future of Research, Inc, United States
  2. Harvard University, United States
  3. Mount Holyoke College, United States
Feature Article
Cite this article as: eLife 2019;8:e48425 doi: 10.7554/eLife.48425
6 figures, 6 tables and 3 additional files

Figures

Figure 1 with 1 supplement
Demographics of survey respondents.

(A) Distribution of responses by field of study and career stage. Of a total of 498 respondents, 488 were categorized as an early career researcher (ECRs; n = 407/488; 83%) or principal investigator (PIs; n = 81/488; 17%). Of these, 76% were in the life sciences (318 ECRs; 52 PIs), 13% were in the physical sciences (53 ECRs; 9 PIs), 9% were in the social sciences (31 ECRs; 14 PIs), and 2% were in the humanities/other (5 ECRs; 6 PIs). 10 respondents were neither ECR nor PI (e.g., “unemployed”; data not shown). (B) Distribution of responses by gender: 54% (271/498) of respondents were female, 43% (216/498) were male, and 3% (11/498) provided another or no response. (C) Distribution of responses by race/ethnicity: Of the 481 respondents who provided an answer to this question, 71% (342/481) were coded as white, 18% (84/481) Asian, and 11% (55/481) URM (underrepresented minority in the sciences).

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.003
Figure 1—source data 1

De-identified demographic data for survey respondents.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.005
Figure 1—figure supplement 1
Search strategy for literature review with number of records remaining at each stage.
https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.004
Experiences of co-reviewing and being invited to review.

(A,B) Responses to question: “How many times in your career have you contributed ideas and/or text to peer review reports where you are not the invited reviewer (e.g. the invited reviewer is the PI for whom you work)?” 73% of all respondents (366/498) had participated in co-reviewing: 63% of this subsample had carried out co-reviewing activities on 1–5 occasions; 33% on 6–20 occasions; and 4% on more than 20 occasions. (B) Number of co-reviewing experiences by career stage for 401 ECRs: the distribution of postdocs (n = 312) is skewed toward more co-reviewing experiences, whereas the distribution of PhD students (n = 89) is skewed toward fewer co-reviewing experiences. (C) Responses to question for ECRs: “How many times in your career have you reviewed an article for publication independently, i.e. carried out the full review and been identified to the editorial staff as the sole reviewer?” 55% of the ECR respondents (218/401) had never carried out independent peer review, and 46% (183/401) had carried out independent review as the invited reviewer: 115 had done so 1–5 times, 57 had done so 6–20 times, and 11 had done so more than 20 times.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.006
Training in how to peer review a manuscript.

Responses to the question: “How did you gain training in how to peer review a manuscript?” Respondents were able to select as many options as applied to them. These data include responses from all survey participants, including those without any independent or co-reviewing experience.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.007
The actions of PIs during co-review.

(A) Responses to the question: “To your knowledge, did your PI ever withhold your name from the editorial staff when you served as the reviewer or co-reviewer?” 46% of respondents (171/374) knew that their name had been withheld, and 32% (118/374) did not know. The remaining 23% (85/374) responded that they knew for certain their name had been disclosed. (B) Responses to the question: “To your knowledge, did your PI ever submit your reviews without editing your work?” 17% of respondents (66/375) answered “yes”, that they knew that their work had not been edited by the PI prior to submission to the journal. Another 35% of respondents (132/375) were unaware of whether their work was edited by their PI prior to their PI submitting it to the journal. Taken together, these 52% of respondents were not involved in editing, regardless of whether it took place. 48% of respondents (177/375) answered “no”, indicating that they knew their work had been edited for sure.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.008
Views on co-review, ghostwriting, and other aspects of peer review.

Responses to the question: “Please indicate how strongly you agree with the following statements.” Data represent the opinions (not experiences) of all respondents regardless of whether or not they had participated in peer review. Respondents were also provided with a textbox to submit comments to expand and/or clarify their opinions.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.010
Figure 5—source data 5

Opinions on co-review and ghostwriting.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.011
Reasons why journals might not know about co-reviewers.

Responses to the question: “What do you think are the reasons why the names of co-authors on peer review reports may not be provided to the editorial staff?.” Here our intent was to ask the respondents about the barriers that might cause names to be withheld (rather than asking whether they thought co-reviewers should be named). Respondents were able to select as many answers as they felt applied. The frequencies do not allow us to assess how important the barriers are, and respondents were not asked to rank barriers, but simply to surmise which ones they felt were relevant to the current practice of ghostwriting.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.013

Tables

Table 1
Definitions used in this study.
https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.002
TermDefinition
Early-career researcher (ECR)We consider this to be anyone engaged in research who is not recognized as an independent leader of a research group, including: undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral researchers; junior research assistants.
Principal Investigator (PI)Anyone recognized as an independent leader of a research group, including: professors, group leaders.
Note: We use this term to mean someone likely to be an invited reviewer due to their professional independence, including pre-tenure junior faculty (e.g. assistant professor in the US). We recognize that, in other contexts, pre-tenure faculty may also categorized as ECRs.
Co-reviewingContributing ideas and/or text to a peer review report when one is not the invited reviewer. Equivalent to a co-author on a manuscript when one is not the corresponding author.
Note: We use this term to mean significant contributions to the peer review report, and so differentiate from casual or insignificant conversations about the manuscript under review that do not provide novel ideas and/or text to the peer review report.
GhostwritingCo-reviewing without named credit to the journal editorial staff.
Note: We use this term to mean only the identification of a co-reviewer to the journal staff in an identical manner to the identification and naming of the invited reviewers. We are not referring to the public naming of peer reviewers, or reviewers signing reviews, or other forms of open peer review which is beyond the scope of this study (Ross-Hellauer, 2017).
Table 2
Experiences with co-review and ghostwriting.

Responses to the question: “When you were not the invited reviewer, what was the extent of your involvement in the peer review process?” Survey participants were able to choose any and all applicable responses from a provided set of possible responses that can be broken down into three interpretation groups. Because respondents were able to select more than one answer, these data include all of the different co-reviewing experiences for each participant.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.009
Possible survey responsesRespondents that selected this as an answer (%)Interpretation of responseRespondents that selected at least one of the answers in this group (n, %)
“I read the manuscript, shared short comments with my PI, and was no longer involved”40No significant contribution149 respondents (40%) selected this response
“I read the manuscript, wrote a full report for my PI, and was no longer involved”47Significant contribution, without known credit258 respondents (70% of those with co-reviewing experience) selected at least one of the responses in this category
“I read the manuscript, wrote the report, my PI edited the report and my PI submitted report with only their name provided to the editorial staff”44
“I read the manuscript, wrote the report, my PI edited the report and we submitted the report together with both of our names provided to the editorial staff”20Significant contribution, with known credit80 respondents (22% of those with co-reviewing experience) selected at least one of the responses in this category
“I read the manuscript, wrote the report, and submitted it independently without my PI’s name provided to the editorial staff”3
  1. Note: (Mis)representation of authorship on any scholarly work can be a subjective grey area. We sought to specifically avoid this in our survey questions by using the answers to the question “When you were not the invited reviewer, what was the extent of your involvement in the peer review process?” to disambiguate the grey areas of authorship. We consider any experience that began with “I read the manuscript, wrote a full report for my PI, and...” to be an unequivocally significant contribution deserving of authorship on the peer review report.

Table 3
Statements for which the differences in the responses of the ECR and PI populations were statistically significant.

We calculated the mean degree of agreement by setting 1 as Strongly Agree through to 5 as Strongly Disagree, and 3 set as No Opinion. The higher the mean value calculated for the group, the closer the group feels to disagreeing with statement. “No opinion” responses, coded as 3, are included in these means. A 2-tailed student’s t-test for equality of the means was used to calculate p values. Due to the difference in the percentage of ECRs and PIs with "no opinion" for the third question, we removed "no opinion" responses and recalculated the mean scores: the difference between the mean scores was reduced but remained significant (ECRs: 1.57 ± 0.05 (n = 365); PIs: 1.88 ± 0.15 (n = 64); p=0.048).

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.012
StatementECR Mean ScorePI Mean Scorep value% ECRs with no opinion% PIs with no opinion
Involving members of a research group in peer review is a beneficial training exercise.1.32 ± 0.03
(n = 405)
1.54 ± 0.10
(n = 81)
p=0.0332.52.5
It is ethical for the invited reviewer (e.g. PI) to involve others (e.g. their trainees) in reviewing manuscripts.*2.06 ± 0.06
(n = 406)
2.37 ± 0.14
(n = 81)
p=0.0291115
It would be valuable to have my name added to a peer review report (e.g. to be recognized as a co-reviewer by the editor; or to use a service such as Publons to be assigned credit).1.71 ± 0.05
(n = 405)
2.11 ± 0.13
(n = 81)
p=0.0031021
  1. *Indicates that p value was calculated assuming equal variance according to Levene’s test for Equality of Variances.

Table 4
Reasons given by PIs for not naming co-reviewers to the journal editor.

Responses to the question: “Consider cases where you contributed to a peer review report and you know your name was NOT provided to the editorial staff. When discussing this with your PI, what reason did they give to exclude you as a co-reviewer?” In addition to the possible answers provided by the survey, respondents were also provided with a textbox to add write-in responses.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.014
Reasons given by PIs for not naming co-reviewersNumber of Respondents
Did not discuss with my PI210
Co-authorship is for papers, not for peer review reports; Intellectual contribution not deemed sufficient33
Journal requires prior approval to share manuscript, which was not obtained; Journal does not allow ECRs to review30
Write-in answers citing mechanistic barriers (e.g. lack of a text box to enter co-reviewer names)3
Table 5
Reasons for why ghostwriting may occur.

Themes and supporting examples of write-in responses to the question: “What do you think are the reasons why the names of co-authors on peer review reports may not be provided to the editorial staff?”

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.015
ThemeExample write-in responses
Cultural expectations“A belief that ghostwriting does occur, but everyone accepts that it’s just the way it is.”
“The belief it has always been like this so why doubt/change the process”
“PIs simply don't think of it because they're used do doing things this way”
“PIs think this practice is okay.”
Training“A belief that this is 'how it is done,' and inviting trainees to contribute to reviews is important for their training, but it is not necessarily important for them to get credit for it.”
“PI feels while the ECR is being trained in doing the review should not be listed as co-author of the review.”
“I don’t understand it”“Either as a reviewer or as an editor, I would have no problem with a co-review. I'm not really sure why more people don't do it. They absolutely should.”
“I have no idea why this is not common practice.”
Table 6
Reasons given by PI for withholding ECR name.

Themes and supporting examples of write-in responses to the question: “Consider cases where you contributed to a peer review report and you know your name was NOT provided to the editorial staff. When discussing this with your PI, what reason did they give to exclude you as a co-reviewer?”.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.016
ThemeExample write-in response
Sin of omission“They forgot”
“Didn’t think of including me; didn’t know how to do so”
“He was in a hurry and he couldn’t figure out the journal’s website”
Cultural expectations“This was not explicitly discussed, but the PI implied this is “common practice” and normal for ECRs to gain experience”
“[PI] said only [they] would be invited to review for such a prestigious journal and “we” need this for future submissions”
“Apparently this duty is part of my job description”
“I was told this is how one gets to train to review papers and grants”
A good way to train“Reviewing papers as [an] ECR is part of the ECR training”
“It’s good experience for me.”
“It was good for my career to practice.”

Data availability

Literature review results are shared in supplementary materials; De-identified source data for Figures 1 and 5 have been provided in response to editorial request. Raw data from the survey are not shared to protect respondents' confidentiality.

Additional files

Supplementary file 1

Results of relevance screening for literature review.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.017
Supplementary file 2

Text of The Role of Early Career Researchers in Peer Review – Survey.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.018
Transparent reporting form
https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.48425.019

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