Unethical reviewers in academia (part 3)

Previously, I wrote two blog posts about unethical reviewers in academia (part 1 and part 2). It is not that I like this topic, but today, I will talk again about that. Why? Because, I keep encountering them, unfortunately. It is something very common.

What is an unethical reviewer? As I explained in previous blog posts, there are various types of unethical behaviors that a reviewer may have such as (1) reviewing his own papers, (2) reviewing papers while having some other conflict of interests, or just (3) asking authors to cite his papers to boost his citation count.

Recently, the last case happened again. A collaborator had a paper rejected by two reviewers. And the two reviewers asked to cite between 3 to 5 irrelevant papers. One of the reviewer even put some comments that were unrelated to the paper, which shows that he did not even took the time to do his work seriously, in a hurry to boost his citations. This is some unprofessional behavior and result in wasting time and reduce the quality of the peer-review process.

Personally, every time that this happens, I am a bit angry and because of this phenomenon I think that there are several people in academia that do not care about research and honesty. It is for example, easy to find the profiles of some researchers on Google Scholar who suddenly have thousands of citations but that come from random journals, so it is obvious that they cheat rather than obtaining citations due to the quality of their research work.

So what to do in this situation?

Unfortunately, the balance of power is unequal between authors and reviewers. For the authors who submit a paper to a journal, if the paper is rejected due to unethical reviews, what can he do? He can write an e-mail to the associate-editor or editor-in-chief to complain but from my experience, decisions are almost never reversed in a journal. In fact, I have never seen the option of reversing a decision to even be available in paper management systems from journals. In the best case, maybe the editor could ask to submit the paper again but usually editors are very busy (some journals receive thousands of papers per year!) and I think many editors do not want to take care of authors who argue about the decisions of papers no matter what is the reason.

So what else could be done?

In my opinion, even if has few chances of working, the best is perhaps to send an e-mail to the associate editor and/or editor-in-chief to report the unethical behavior. Maybe that the reviewer could then be blacklisted or that a note could be put in its user profile of the management system as a result. But I would still not bet on this…

In my opinion, if we want something to change about this, the main persons who have power over a journal are the publishers, the societies that are responsible of these journals (e.g. ACM and IEEE), and the companies that take care of impact factors and other academic metrics and rankings of journals.

For example, in a famous case several years ago, an IEEE journal (the IEEE Transactions on Industrial Informatics) lost its impact factor due to citation stacking (artificially increasing the number of self-citations). Losing the impact factor is a serious consequence for the journal that can make things change. So a possibility to make things change is to also complain to the publisher or affiliated societies. This can have some impact although I did not see this happen often.

Another possibility would be to create an online public website where every researcher could upload the potentially unethical reviews that they have received. These reviews could be categorized by journals, and perhaps by authors of papers that reviewers ask to cite. This could show some interesting trends and could perhaps make some things to change. But it would also require to have some moderator to verify such website, and who would take care of this? It would certainly not be a perfect solution and perhaps that people would still find a way to game that system…

Another possibility is to have some external persons that occasionally check what is happening inside the different journals to evaluate them. I think that this is something that does exist. But I do not think that it is for all journals and obviously in some journals nothing is changing over the years.

That is all for today. I just wanted to post my thoughts about this topic once again but this time by discussing also some other solutions.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a computer science professor and founder of the SPMF open-source data mining library, which offers more than 170 algorithms for analyzing data, implemented in Java.

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