Peer review


Written evidence submitted by the
Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (PR 34)

Background: COPE

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is a UK registered charity that promotes integrity in research publication and advises journal editors how to handle cases of research and publication misconduct. It provides a forum for editors and publishers of peer-reviewed journals to discuss specific, anonymised cases. Summaries of these cases, together with a wide range of guidance material, are freely available (to members and non-members) via its website:
COPE currently has nearly 6500 members from around the world and from all academic disciplines. Membership is open to editors of peer-reviewed scholarly journals. COPE’s main source of funding is from publishing companies paying for their journals to join. All members of COPE are expected to follow a Code of Conduct for Editors and we have recently developed a complementary Code of Conduct for Publishers. COPE will consider complaints against members alleged to have broken the code. However, COPE does not undertake any other investigations into allegations of research or publication misconduct. COPE publishes guidance documents including a series of flowcharts advising editors how to handle ethical problems such as plagiarism and reviewer misconduct. We are currently developing a distance learning programme for editors.

Scope of this submission

This submission focuses on the use of peer review before publication by scholarly journals.

1.0 Does peer review work?

Peer review is the process by which reports of, or proposals for, research are scrutinised by other researchers. It is widely used by journals to determine what to publish and by funding bodies to determine what to fund. Peer review has been used for at least 300 years, and records of the Royal Society show that it was used in the 17th century to decide which work would be presented before the Society. Although peer review is well-established, evidence of its effectiveness is inconclusive.1,2 However lack of evidence of efficacy is not the same as saying there is evidence that it does not work. Peer review is difficult to study, partly because its functions have not always been clearly defined.3 However, the general consensus among editors and publishers is that peer review is useful and is probably the best system currently available for assessing the quality of submissions to journals and ensuring the quality of material published. Most researchers also acknowledge that, while peer review has some shortcomings, it is generally a useful system.

2.0 Can peer review be abused?

Peer review relies, to a great extent, on trust between authors, editors and reviewers. All have obligations and responsibilities but journal editors and reviewers occupy a privileged position. Editors have a duty to ensure that peer review for their journal is carried out in a fair and efficient way. Items for publication should be selected on the basis of the quality, originality and relevance of the work and its suitability for the journal. However, peer review may be affected by bias (for example if editors are biased towards the work of friends and colleagues or against the work of competitors) and misconduct (for example if reviewers steal ideas or data from other researchers).

3.0 Steps to reduce bias

It is probably impossible to eliminate all bias from peer review but good editors endeavour to minimize it. Since reviewers are selected for their knowledge and experience in the field being studied, and most will be active in that research area, it is rare to find a completely disinterested reviewer, but editors must seek individuals who are well-informed yet can produce an objective review. Editors need to be aware of financial conflicts of interest, academic rivalries, personal animosities and sometimes political or religious views that might affect objectivity. Studies have suggested that reviewers may be biased towards or against authors from well-known institutions, from other countries, or of a particular gender. However the evidence is not clear-cut and, in some cases, is contradictory.4

3.1 Blind (masked) peer review

Some journals use blinded (or masked) peer review in an attempt to reduce reviewer bias. This involves removing the authors’ names and institutions, and sometimes other identifying features such as references to their own work, from the manuscript before it is reviewed. However, at least in the medical literature, the evidence of whether blinded review is practicable or reduces bias is contradictory. A summary of published studies concluded that, in the absence of conclusive evidence, editors should judge which system was best suited for their journal.5

3.2 Open peer review

An alternative approach to reducing bias is to use open peer review and this has been adopted by some medical journals. In open peer review, not only are the authors’ identities revealed to the reviewers, but the reviewers’ sign their reviews so their identity is disclosed to the authors. (Note: the term ‘open review’ is sometimes also applied to systems where articles are posted for public comment either before or after publication – this is obviously different from open peer review as described here.) Proponents of open peer review suggest that it may improve the quality of review, reduce personal attacks and help uncover biases and undisclosed competing interests. Opponents fear that individuals may be unwilling to act as reviewers if their identity is revealed, or may be too guarded in their comments. Studies comparing open and conventional review are inconclusive and have failed to demonstrate that one is superior to the other.5

4.0 How common is misconduct by reviewers and editors?

Misconduct by reviewers and editors is probably rare but can have serious effects on those affected and is recognised as a form of academic misconduct. Although it is hard to tell how often abuse occurs, even low levels of misconduct can reduce trust in the system and are therefore important.

4.1 Cases brought to the COPE Forum

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) considers cases submitted by its members (journal editors) to its Forum for discussion and these provide some information on this question.6 COPE does not adjudicate on the cases, but simply provides informal advice, so it is also important to realise that not all cases labelled as concerning a particular type of misconduct actually involved misconduct. Also, since COPE produces guidance for editors on how to handle the most common types of misconduct, cases brought to the Forum are likely to represent the most complex cases, or those that fall into grey areas rather than clear-cut cases of misconduct. However, in the absence of other data, analysis of the COPE cases indicates journal editors’ concerns. Since it was established in 1997, COPE has considered 419 cases (all of which are summarized on the COPE website)6. Of these, 17 (4%) involved possible reviewer misconduct and 29 (7%) involved unethical behaviour by editors. (For comparison, cases involving the most common types of author misconduct, namely multiple submission and plagiarism, were brought to COPE 41 and 43 times respectively.)

4.2 International survey of science journal editors

A survey of 231 science journal editors7 run by Wiley-Blackwell found that most believed that reviewer misconduct in general, and, more specifically, failure by reviewers to disclose competing interests occurred only rarely in their journals. The average ratings were 0.8 and 0.94 respectively on a scale of 0=never, 1=rarely (less than once a year), 2=sometimes (more than once a year), 3=very often (at least once a month). The editors stated that the frequency of such problems was stable. Out of 16 possible ethical issues identified, these two were rated 8th and 5th respectively in terms of their seriousness.

5.0 How should editors respond to suspected reviewer misconduct?
COPE recommends that editors should follow the steps set out in its flowchart if they suspect that a reviewer has appropriated an author’s ideas or data .8 The flowchart recommends that the editor should review the evidence to determine whether the author’s allegations are well-founded and, if they are, should discuss them with the reviewer. If the reviewer cannot provide a satisfactory explanation, or does not respond, the editor should contact the reviewer’s institution and ask for an investigation. Another flowchart provides guidance on how editors should handle cases of suspected plagiarism (which may result from reviewer misconduct).9

6.0 What safeguards are in place to prevent and detect misconduct by journal editors?
COPE requires all its members to follow its Code of Conduct10 and will consider complaints against those alleged to have broken the code.11 COPE also provides advice to members through its quarterly Forum meetings and from members of its staff and Council between meetings. COPE also occasionally contacts its members to discuss issues informally. COPE encourages journals and publishers to have systems in place for handling complaints about editorial misconduct (and will only consider complaints itself once such procedures have been exhausted).

7.0 How can misconduct by reviewers and editors be reduced?
COPE membership has grown dramatically, starting from about a dozen editors of UK medical journals in 1997 to almost 6500 journals from all academic disciplines today (of which about 750 are journals published in the UK). We have been particularly encouraged that several major academic publishers, including BioMed Central, Emerald, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell and Wolters Kluwer, have signed up many or all of their journals (and this has contributed to the rapid increase in COPE membership in recent years). However, by no means all UK publishers or journals are COPE members. COPE is a registered charity and raises funds entirely from membership subscriptions which are set on a sliding scale depending on journal frequency or turnover. However, COPE provides membership at no or reduced cost to journals from developing countries and others that cannot afford the regular subscription. We would welcome public endorsement of COPE’s policies and their inclusion into national (and international) standards for publishing.

8.0 How can editors and publishers prevent bias and misconduct?

Editors are responsible for the way in which peer review is organized at their journal, although this may also be influenced by systems and resources provided by the publisher. There are many minor variations in the way peer review is conducted across different journals but no clear evidence that one system is better than any other. However, journal systems play an important part in reducing bias and misconduct. COPE therefore advises and educates editors about best practice in this area. COPE produces a Code of Conduct for editors10. The Code states that "Editors’ decisions to accept or reject a paper for publication should be based on the paper’s importance, originality, and clarity, and the study’s validity and its relevance to the remit of the journal… A description of peer review processes should be published, and editors should be ready to justify any important deviation from the described processes." The latest version of the Code (in press, at the time of preparing this submission) also states that "Editors should require reviewers to disclose any potential competing interests before agreeing to review a submission".

8.1 The COPE Code of Conduct for Editors states that "editors should strive to ensure that peer review at their journal is fair, unbiased and timely" and that they "should have systems to ensure that material submitted to their journal remains confidential while under review". Journals should also "have systems for managing their own conflicts of interest as well as those of their staff, authors, reviewers and editorial board members". Each journal should also "have a declared process for handling submissions from the editors, employees or members of the editorial board to ensure unbiased review". The Code also states that "Editors should provide guidance to reviewers on everything that is expected of them including the need to handle submitted material in confidence". COPE is working with several major publishers to audit their journals’ adherence to the Code and advise them about how they might improve their policies and processes. We are also developing a distance learning package for editors and publishers which we hope to launch in mid-2011.

9.0 Role of academic institutions in preventing and responding to allegations of misconduct
Journals should not be solely responsible for preventing and handling misconduct by reviewers. Academic institutions (and other organizations that employ researchers) should promote good peer review practices, recognize that acting as a reviewer is an essential part of academic work, and provide training in research integrity and publication ethics to all researchers. Institutions should also be responsive to well-founded requests from journal editors to investigate suspected misconduct by reviewers. If an institution finds that a researcher has abused the peer review system (e.g. by stealing another person’s ideas or data during peer review) this information should be shared with the editor of the journal (or the funding body) concerned. However, judging from cases presented to COPE, editors do not always find institutions to be responsive or willing to share results of inquiries into misconduct. Problems have been encountered in communicating with both UK and overseas institutions and COPE therefore plans to work towards improving cooperation and dialogue between editors and institutions. One important step would be for all UK institutions to appoint a research integrity officer who would act as a point of contact and coordinate investigations.

10.0 Recommendations from COPE for improving peer review and scientific publications

10.1 Academic institutions should recognize the importance of peer review to the dissemination of scientific research findings and therefore allow researchers time to act as reviewers. All reviewers should be prepared to act as reviewers as part of their academic role on the understanding that others will do the same for their work. Skills of critical appraisal necessary for peer review are also applicable to other activities (for example in the application of evidence-based medicine) and should be properly taught. Institutions should also provide training for junior researchers in research integrity and publication ethics.

10.2 UK research institutions should be required to identify a Research Integrity Officer (as is done in America). This person would act as a point of contact (e.g. for journal editors to raise concerns about possible research misconduct) and coordinate investigations as required.

10.3 Editors of scientific journals should be encouraged to join COPE and follow its guidance on best practice. UK publishers should be encouraged to support the editors of their journals in joining COPE.

Declaration of interests


The Committee on Publication Ethics is a registered charity (number 1123023). Membership is open to editors and publishers of peer-reviewed scholarly journals and those interested in publication ethics. It obtains funds from subscription fees. Many of COPE’s guidance documents are freely available (to non-members) on its website

COPE is run by an elected Council, members of which are also trustees of the charity and are all unpaid. COPE has one full-time employee and three part-time contractors.

About the author

Dr Elizabeth Wager is the Chair of COPE. This is an unpaid position. She developed the COPE flowcharts and was involved in drafting or revising some of the COPE documents referred to in this submission. She works as a freelance trainer and consultant providing courses on writing, medical publishing and publication ethics to doctors, researchers, writers and other employees working in academic institutions, healthcare institutions, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, communications agencies, and publishers. She is the author of a book on publication strategy (‘Getting Research Published’ 2nd edition, 2010, Radcliffe Publishing). She has worked as a consultant to Wiley-Blackwell and the BMJ Group coordinating publication ethics audits and a survey.

This submission has been approved by COPE Council (7th March 2010) and represents the views of COPE.


1 Jefferson T, Alderson P, Wager E, Davidoff F. Effects of editorial peer review: a systematic review. JAMA 2002;287:2784-6

2 Jefferson T, Rudin M, Brodney Folse S, Davidoff F. Editorial peer review for improving the quality of reports of biomedical studies. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007; Issue 2. Art No MR000016

3 Jefferson T, Wager E, Davidoff F. Measuring the quality of editorial peer review. JAMA 2002;287: 2786-90

4 Godlee F, Dickersin K. Bias, subjectivity, chance and conflict of interest in editorial decisions. Chapter 6 in: Godlee F & Jefferson T (eds): Peer Review in Health Sciences 2e, BMJ Books, London, 2003.

5 Fletcher RH, Fletcher SW. The effectiveness of journal peer review. Chapter 4 in: Godlee F & Jefferson T (eds): Peer Review in Health Sciences 2e, BMJ Books, London, 2003.

6 COPE cases.

7 Wager E, Fiack S, Graf C, Robinson A, Rowlands I. Science journal editors’ views on publication ethics: results of an international survey. J Med Ethics 35:348-53

8 COPE flowchart. What to do if you suspect a reviewer has appropriated an author’s idea or data. COPE

9 COPE flowchart. What to do if you suspect plagiarism in a published article.

10 Code of Conduct.

11 COPE flowchart. How COPE handles complaints against editors.

Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)

8 March 2011