Unethical reviewers in academia

In this blog post, I will discuss about the importance of an ethical review process in academia, and the problem of unethical reviewers. I will share some stories about some unethical reviewers in journals and conferences.

Peer review in academia

The process of peer review in academia consists of several researchers that evaluate the work of other researchers to determine if it should be published, revised or rejected.

Peer review is important because it acts as a filter to ensure the quality of papers that are published. For conferences, the goal of peer review is also to rank the papers to select the best one to be published.

In the best case, the peer review process is fair and the best papers that are the most worthy of being published are published. But this is not always the case. One of the reason is that the opinion of reviewers is sometimes subjective. But sometimes, it is also due to some unethical behaviour. I will discuss this problem in more details.

Case 1. Reviewers who ask authors to cite their paper to increase their citation count

This is one of the problem that I see quite often in academia. It happened to me several times that after submitting a paper to a journal, a reviewer would ask me to cite 3 to 10 of his papers as a condition for accepting the paper. Of course the review is anonymous, but when the reviewer asks to cite several papers by a same author and these papers are not really related to the topic, it is quite obvious that this author is the reviewer. In an extreme case, I saw a reviewer asking to cite 10 papers, and I complained to the editor of that journal. But it did not appear to have much effect.

As a program committee member of a good conference, I once saw an anonymous reviewer who reviewed several papers, and in each of his review was systematically asking the author to cite his paper(s). This is unprofessional.

Case 2. Editor who ask authors to cite his papers or papers from his journal

Yes, sometimes, it is the editor that directly asks that an author cites his papers (!) This is surprising but it happened to me and my collaborators at least twice. In that case, the editor seemingly wants to increase his citation count. In some case, the editor also asks to cite papers from his own journal to increase its impact factor.

This type of behaviour is very serious and has lead some journals from famous publishers to be banned from journal indexes. For example, the IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON INDUSTRIAL INFORMATICS was banned from JCR (Journal Citation Report) in 2015 for “citation stacking”. A special committee was set up by the IEEE to oversee that journal and the IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON INDUSTRIAL ELECTRONICS for a similar reason ( more details here: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=7812814 ).

As an author, if a reviewer is unethical, you can complain to the editor, but if the editor is unethical, then this is a difficult situation to handle. And this can happen even in journals published by some famous publishers.

Case 3. Reviewer reviewing his own papers or those of his friends to accept them

This is another type of cheating in academia. As a program committee member of a conference, I have once found that a reviewer had created two accounts and was reviewing his own paper with a slightly different name. I then reported him to the conference organizers who banned him from the conference. This is relatively easy to detect. But it becomes more difficult to detect such problem when some person review the papers of his friends instead of his own papers. In some top conferences, I have heard rumors that some authors were doing this type of cheating.

Case 4. Reviewer rejecting papers because of a conflict of interest.

Another problem in academia is that a reviewer may reject a paper just because it is in conflict with his own research. For example, an unethical reviewer may reject a paper because he does not want someone else to publish on a topic before him. This is unethical, but it does happen, and as an author there is not much that one can do because usually reviewers are anonymous.

Case 5. Reviewer who disclose publicly an unpublished paper, or to his collaborators

A reviewer should always ensure that unpublished papers remain confidential and are not leaked to the public. But this is not always the case. I have found this the hard way around 2012, when I submitted my TRuleGrowth paper to the PKDD conference. My paper was rejected, but by searching on Google, I found that the paper that I had submitted was publicly available on the website of the reviewer. I then contacted the PKDD organizers to complain about that reviewer who leaked my unpublished paper. Then the reviewer said sorry and that he just put the paper on his webserver because he was travelling and did not expect it to appear in Google…

In some cases, an unethical reviewer will also send unpublished papers to his collaborators.

Conclusion

The peer-review process is very important in academia. Although some authors are unethical, it also happens that reviewers and editors may also be unethical. In this blog post, I have discussed several such scenarios that I have noticed or heard of. Of course, a researcher should always have an ethical behavior and avoid cheating. If you want to share your own experiences, please post them in the comment section below. I would like to hear your stories too.


Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor working in China and founder of the SPMF open source data mining software.

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