Despite ongoing discussions as to its flaws and how to improve it, the peer review process remains the cornerstone in ensuring that published research is rigorous, reproducible and ethically sound. Cambridge University Press is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics and is committed to promoting ethical review practices. As a peer reviewer, it is important to be aware of the ethical impacts of the review process, and to consider them carefully when responding to a review invitation or completing a review.
Broadly, ethical considerations for review fit into five main areas:
1. Conflicts of interest
- A conflict of interest is anything that affects or has the potential to affect your ability to review the paper or book proposal solely on the basis of academic merit. Even if you feel able to review the content with integrity, it is essential that you declare anything that could be considered a conflict of interest to the relevant editor.
- Transparency is key: the integrity of the peer review process depends upon it. You must declare any potential conflict of interest that arises at any point in the review process, so that the editor(s) can take the appropriate steps based on their experience and understanding of the field.
- Examples of conflicts of interest include, but are not limited to:
- Having a relationship to the author(s) of the work, either personally or professionally. This includes previous research or lab group members, or co-authors.
- Finding that a manuscript or book proposal that you have been asked to review is very similar to one you have in preparation or under consideration with a journal or publisher.
- Having a direct or indirect financial interest in the result of the review.
- Having a direct or indirect non-financial interest in the result of the review (for example if the paper contradicts something you have a well-known public stance on).
- Conflicts of interest may become apparent at any point in the review process - when you are invited to review or after you have accepted the invitation to review and have received the entire paper or proposal. Whenever the conflict arises, it should be declared immediately.
- Multiple studies have found evidence of bias introduced during the peer review process. Be aware of unconscious bias, whether that's when you are deciding whether or not to review a particular proposal or paper, or when you are assessing the work and writing your report.
- If you are asked to review a paper or proposal under the single-blind model, or you suspect the identity of the author under the double-blind model, think carefully about whether your impressions of the work are influenced in any way by the author's age, gender, institutional affiliation, or nationality - or indeed anything other than information that pertains to the quality and rigour of the research.
- Rooting your review in evidence from the paper or proposal is crucial in avoiding bias.
- In cases where the peer review model being used requires the anonymity of the author(s) and/or reviewers, it is the responsibility of the peer review controllers or editors to make sure identifying information is removed from the content or reviews in question (you can find out how to do this on our Online peer review systems page). However, it is also helpful for you as the reviewer to understand the model being used and avoid including identifying information in the documents you produce as part of the review process. This minimizes the chance that this information could be inadvertently passed on to the author(s).
- Papers or proposals that are sent out for review are confidential documents and should not be shared or discussed with anyone other than those involved in the peer review process.
- Once you have completed your review, or if you have rejected the invitation to review, you must not share or discuss the work or any related information, even if the work is to be published.
- While we encourage the mentorship of new reviewers by involving them in the review process, it is crucial to get the permission of the editor before sharing the details of any review activity with a colleague, or asking someone else to complete the review on your behalf.
- Some journals include the facility to make confidential comments to the editor that are not seen by the author(s) - these can be useful for flagging concerns or viewpoints you feel would be inappropriate to raise directly in your review report.
4. Quality and efficiency
- The integrity of the publication process and the quick dissemination of research relies on timely, high-quality reviews.
- If you are unable to complete a review in the timeframe requested, please declare this to the editor as soon as it becomes apparent, even if you have accepted the invitation to review. This ensures that the editorial team can make alternative arrangements where necessary, and communicate any delays to the author(s) of the work.
- Quality reviews take time - though practiced reviewers will be more efficient than those who are more inexperienced. Quality reviews provide an integral service to the academic community - helping researchers improve their work for publication and throughout the course of their careers. Your review should be appropriately detailed and constructive and the claims in it must be supported by specific evidence from the work you are reviewing - see our guidelines on how to review for more information.
- Ensure that you are up to date with any reporting guidelines relevant to your discipline, and that you consider whether the article complies in your review.
5. Raising any concerns about author/editor misconduct
- If, during your review, you have any concerns about author misconduct (e.g. plagiarism, fabrication, ghost author or duplicate publication) please raise your concerns with the editor.
- If you feel unable to do this (for example, in cases where the editor themselves appears to be involved in the misconduct), check the publisher or journal website for your options for raising a publishing ethics concern. The editor who invited you to carry out the review should be your first port of call for these concerns, but most publishers also have a publishing ethics or research integrity contact. For issues related to Cambridge University Press publishing, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your efforts in reviewing papers and book proposals are a crucial service to the academic community. Ensuring the utmost integrity and transparency when you review has a real impact on the quality of work in your field, and how quickly research reaches its audience. Thank you for considering your ethical responsibilities, and remember that you can always rely on your Cambridge editor for advice and support on any ethical matter.
You can find comprehensive ethical guidelines for peer reviewers and useful case studies on the website of the Committee on Publication Ethics. For book reviewers, the Association of American University Presses' Best Practices for Peer Review are also helpful.