a hand using a red pencil to mark up a draft
a hand using a red pencil to mark up a draft

Opinion: Exorcising Ghostwriting from Peer Review

Training young scientists to review submitted manuscripts should be an academic exercise, not a facet of professional scientific publishing.

James L. Sherley
Jan 13, 2020


On November 4, 2019, The Scientist ran a revealing Q&A highlighting a recent survey published in eLife. Responses from early career researchers (ECRs) and other scientists drew attention to a widespread, unethical practice to which academic scientists have too long resigned themselves—peer review ghostwriting (8:e48425, 2019).

As defined in that paper, peer review ghostwriting occurs when scientists hand over manuscripts that they have agreed to review for journal editors to graduate students or postdocs in their research groups. The involvement of the junior scientists is not typically disclosed to the journal, so editors work under the impression that the invited reviewer developed and wrote the resulting manuscript review themselves.

Survey results reported in the eLife paper provided the first quantitative evidence for the prevalence of this practice, as well as for the practice the study authors refer to as co-reviewing. In a strict sense, co-reviewing happens when a trainee is involved in developing and writing the review and their contribution is disclosed to journal editors. Some consider this transparent form of collaborative peer review a valuable part of scientific training, and the eLife study authors even argue that journals should codify co-review. But in my experience, the involvement of co-reviewers is sometimes not disclosed to the journals, just as is the case with ghostwriters.

See “Trainees Often Ghostwrite PI’s Peer Reviews: Survey

Whether co-reviewers are named or not, this practice, along with the more patently unethical ghostwriting, has no defensible place in the live arena of academic publishing. In this professional context, journal publications are major forces in determining academic career success, supporting the livelihoods of researchers, influencing government policy, furthering research funding, advancing scientific and medical progress, and supporting the academic enterprise. Having inexperienced reviewers usher manuscripts through the essential process of peer review is a disservice to submitting authors. Co-reviewing, even when trainee reviewers have been named and credited, has the potential to harm the careers of the scientists who submitted the manuscript under review in the event that poorly informed, deficient reviews result in rejections of papers that are crucial to obtaining research funds, academic promotion, professional reputation, salary compensation, and so on. Rather, training in peer review practice and ethics should be at least started, if not completed, before a young scientist has the opportunity to review actual submitted manuscripts and potentially alter that process in a negative way.

Whether co-reviewers are named or not, this practice, along with the more patently unethical ghostwriting, has no defensible place in the live arena of academic publishing.

Both ghostwriting and co-reviewing can also have the effect of denying trainees credit for the work they have contributed. The potential for exploitation of graduate student and postdoc ghostwriters and co-reviewers is certainly a good reason for concern and intervention, but the more significant problem for academic science—one that was not considered by the authors of the eLife paper—is how these practices contribute to the general erosion of academic integrity. Prospective study authors submit their manuscripts for peer review by professional journals with the reasonable expectation and agreement that their submissions will be provided fair, expert, and confidential peer review by another qualified member of their field. Ghostwriting and co-review completely violate the professional ethics of this contract.

Ghostwriting is clearly unethical. But arguing that co-reviewing is acceptable because it trains ECRs to be better manuscript reviewers is a convenient rationalization to excuse a similarly unethical practice. The place to teach journal manuscript review is in open working forums such as departmental journal clubs, and in graduate-level subject courses and special topics seminars. It is interesting that the survey in the eLife paper did not list graduate classes as a response choice for where respondents had obtained training for reviewing manuscripts, though the authors did propose the introduction of compulsory teaching of manuscript reviewing in graduate courses. 

Most journals provide reviewers with detailed instructions for the desired content and format of manuscript reviews. What they do not do, and should not be expected to do, is teach reviewers how to evaluate and judge the significance of manuscripts, their technical quality, the soundness of their arguments and conclusions, the integrity of their conduct, and their overall scientific value. This expertise should be learned and developed in the course of an academic career by attention to it at every stage of training. And this essential aspect of a scientist’s education needs to be complemented with an emphasis on proper ethical conduct in journal manuscript review.

The eLife paper authors rightly advise that something needs to be done about these aspects of peer review in the interest of improving the quality of academia. They recommend ending the practice of ghostwriting and crafting more-substantive guidelines around co-reviewing. They suggest that journal editors codify mechanisms for disclosing and crediting the contributions of noninvited reviewers, who are often members of the invited reviewer’s lab. But journals already have a process for invited reviewers to decline the invitation and propose alternative reviewers, such as a trainee, that the journal editor can then decide to accept or not. In this way, interested and properly trained ECRs can begin to establish their own credentials in the eyes of journal editors with appropriate instruction and guidance, without compromising the integrity of the journal manuscript review process and of academia as a whole.

It is up to institutions of higher learning and their members to remedy the breach of publishing integrity that ghostwriting and co-review cause. Often in academia, ethical conduct is taught but not practiced. A cultural shift toward more-ethical practices will require that all academics work to better align their actions with the well-reasoned ideals of ethical conduct. It is simple; we need to begin teaching ethical manuscript review as a core principle of academic life and responsibility. The eLife paper shows that the scientific community is ready for this change. College and university faculty simply need to start teaching it and following it themselves.

James L. Sherley is the founder and current director of Asymmetrex LLC, a company focused on developing adult tissue stem cell technologies and applying them to clinical drug discovery and cellular medicine. Before starting Asymmetrex, he spent more than 20 years as a principal investigator leading laboratory research programs in cancer center, independent research institute, and research university settings.