Peer review polices publications: How the process can work


One of our ReviewerCredits Ambassadors wrote to us this week with a publication problem. It went like this: She’d recently submitted an article to a journal but it had been rejected because it was ‘out of scope’. The article had been sent out for peer review evaluation, however.



Nevermind, our valiant Ambassador carried on, re-formatted the paper, and sent it off to another journal. Actually one recommended to her by the editor of the first ‘rejecting’ journal. All good stuff. The new journals sent the paper out for peer review immediately and, low and behold, comments came back immediately from an expert colleague: “Watch out Editor: This paper has also been submitted to another journal”. You see the second journal had used one of the same peer reviewers as had the first ‘rejecting’ journal. Nothing to worry about at all for our dear Ambassador: This is peer review working well. One peer reviewer for the second journal is flagging up concerns to the Editor that this might be a case of what we call ‘duplicate submissions’ where one author sends the same paper to two or more journals at the same time and then waits to see which one accepts the article first. Very naughty. Very unethical.

Fields are small and so this happens all the time: A second journal will end up using one or more of the same reviewers as an earlier journal. As editors we very often get emails from peer reviewers letting us know about this: “Dear Editor, I recently worked on this paper for Journal x and I can see that the authors did not take into account any of my comments from the first time around”, is one very common interation.

Or worse: peer reviewers, as happened in this case, might suspect author foul play, especially if the time between two reviews of the same work for two different journals is short, as in this case. Easily cleared up: Our dear Ambassador wrote to the editor of the second, new journal enclosing their rejection email from the first. Nerve-wracking for authors, nevertheless.

But, this is a great example of how peer review policies the publication process. We can all be on the lookout for dodgy author goings on, but first we have to know what these practices could be as well as having a clear understanding of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed in academic publishing.

Dodgy things authors do that it’s important to be aware of as a peer reviewer.


  1. Submitting the same article to more than one journal at the same time. Duplicate submissions. Naughty, as we’ve discussed in this article. Not allowed because entering a journal submission system with a piece of research requires you to state that the work is not under consideration with another journal. Usually caught by editors and/or peer reviewers thanks to clear communication and because research fields are small. You’ve always got a good chance of hitting the same peer reviewers at different journals.
  2. Trying to make deals with peer reviewers. We’ve seen this a few times: You have a review of an article and ask for changes to be made. Your review is open and the authors end up finding out who you are. They write to you, the peer reviewer, and offer authorship in return for accepting their changes to the manuscript. Should be immediately flagged to the editor as this is unethical behaviour.
  3. Adding authors (or trying to) once a paper has been accepted. Less of an issue for peer reviewers because this usually happens after acceptance, it’s nevertheless worth keeping track of any attempted changes in authorship you might get to see between different versions of the same article in peer review. Remember: Any changes in authorship such as order or additions/deletions require the approval of all initial authors on a paper as well as the journal editor. Always worth flagging.
  4. Citation boosting. While it’s a good idea to cite your own work in new articles, some authors take this to an extreme. Citing loads of their own previous publications to the detriment of a fair and balanced approach. Article citations should be fair: Balanced so as to shape the argument with both sides of a debate as well as historical (to show that authors are aware of the extent of their field) as well as up-to-date and topical (to show that the question their article addresses is interesting and up-to-the minute). Flag up to the editor if you feel an article you are peer reviewing uses too many of the authors own previous publications and also: Don’t demand the inclusion of your own work in a paper when acting as a peer reviewer. This is also unethical and a form of citation boosting.
  5. Peer review cartels. Authors often try to game the peer review system. Adding made-up email addresses to journal submission systems and into their cover letters so that they can later control the peer review process and even (in one example) providing the email address of a family member in place of the correct email for an esteemed colleague. If, as a peer reviewer, you get to see the comments of others during the processing of an article, be aware that this happens and – if you suspect another peer reviewer of giving authors an easy ride – flag this as well to the editor.

You see, journal editors are often very busy working academics – especially at the smaller society journals or those with lower impact factors. They will greatly appreciate any help you are able to give them as a peer reviewer policing the publication process.

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