Are you the right reviewer? 5 questions to ask yourself

Ethical research is everyone’s responsibility. Researchers, editors and peer reviewers all play a role in maintaining the quality and integrity of research pushed out into the public domain. With that in mind, here’s some ethical questions to consider before accepting a manuscript to review.

Peer review is at the heart of the research ecosystem. It’s not only designed to improve the study at hand, it’s a crucial part of your own professional development as a reviewer, giving you first-hand access to the latest advances and research trends in your field.

But alongside its benefits, peer review also comes with risks.

It’s critical that all peer reviewers have a sound understanding of good ethical conduct before accepting a review invitation. This includes being aware of your personal biases, conflicts of interest and expertise, and being able to identify potential breaches of normal ethical practice in the research itself.

Without this knowledge, you risk unintentionally influencing the research you’re tasked with reviewing. You also risk false findings and potentially dangerous research practices being introduced to the public sphere – slowing down science.

We’ve listed some of the questions surrounding personal biases and conflicts of interests below. These are discussed in-depth with examples and follow-on actions as part of the Publons Academy – our free online course to learn how to become a master of peer review – along with the ethical considerations to watch out for in the study you’re reviewing, including data sharing and transparency.

1. Do I have a personal bias against the researcher or research topic?
These are any thoughts, viewpoints or preferences you have that may unfairly affect your review of the manuscript (whether positively or negatively). It could relate to gender, age, race, academic background – or even the topic of the study.

2. Do I have any conflicts of interest?
It is your responsibility to declare whether the researchers of the study are co-workers, collaborators or those in direct competition to you. This includes if you have something to gain financially from the study.

3. Do I have the right expertise to peer review this paper?
You should be honest with the editor if the topic of the manuscript – or a substantive aspect of the literature or methodology – is outside of your expertise. If only one section of the research puts you out of your comfort zone, it pays to go back to the editor to check whether the other reviewers have that covered.

4. Will anything stop me from being confidential about the research?
Maintaining confidentiality throughout the peer review process is critical. This protects the author from their work being plagiarised, incorporated into competing research, or publicised before publication. Here’s an example of this nightmare scenario coming true, with the plagiarised research eventually discovered and retracted.

5. Can I be fair, polite and constructive to the researchers?
Remember that saying, ‘Treat others as you’d like to be treated’? It comes to the fore here. While it’s important to be honest and critical in your review, you should also keep your tone friendly, fair and polite.

It’s important to ask yourself these questions before accepting a manuscript to review. And if you’re worried about your ability to write a fair and impartial review, ask yourself – are you the right reviewer? If you’re not or you’re unsure, discuss your concerns with the journal editor immediately. And if possible, have one or two more reviewers up your sleeve that might be more suitable for the task.

Want to learn more? Become a master of peer review and impress top journal editors by enrolling in the Publons Academy – A free online course designed by expert reviewers, editors and Nobel Prize winners.