Overall, the PRs were quite strong in their responses to this question, stating that PRs are “absolutely not” always right. As an author, Stephen has received shockingly misguided reviews in the past, which he found extremely frustrating, because it is rarely advisable to call out a PR “in front of” the journal editor, as you ultimately require their sign-off to get published. Conversely, as a PR, Stephen stated that “you don’t suddenly become perfect”; thus, sometimes an author has perfectly reasonable grounds to reject a PR’s recommendation. The most important thing as a PR is to put your ego aside and acknowledge that the review process is supposed to be a dialogue and a discussion, rather than the giving and fulfilment of orders.
Geraldine echoed this sentiment with her response: “Given that PRs are experts in the field, their knowledge and critiques should be respected, but authors should provide a case for their approach and ideas if they feel that the PR has misunderstood or is not right.”
Judith stated that the collective decision based on reviews by three PRs is reasonable in the vast majority of cases; thus, PRs should bear in mind that the aim is to promote a positive approach to reviewing, which requires PRs to offer guidance on improvement so that even when a paper is rejected, the author(s) can take something positive from the process for future work.
How do peer reviewers manage conflicts of interest?
Even though authors are ‘blinded’ in the peer review process, conflicts of interest can arise if the PR recognizes the author. In smaller, narrower fields in particular, you often know whose work it is, which isn’t a problem most of the time because PRs are able to be objective in the review process. However, sometimes, if you have already seen and reviewed the work, either at conferences or at other journals, this can make the review process less objective and thus compromise the ‘blind’ review process (Geraldine).
While Stephen has yet to encounter a conflict of interest, he explained that journals usually have a number of associate editors to avoid any conflict of interest so that, for example, colleagues or students of associate editor 1 can have their submissions handled by associate editor 2. Additionally, journal editors should avoid assigning submissions to PRs at the same institution that they know have a relationship with the author(s).
As a professional English editor for Uni-Edit, Sara encountered a possible conflict of interest when asked to edit a PLoS One review paper that she had been involved in reviewing. To avoid the conflict of interest, she merely explained to Uni-Edit that she was unable to edit the paper.
Sara also recounted the following situation involving a colleague of hers: Her colleague was sent a paper to review, which involved an analysis of data that he and other colleagues had submitted to a group for use in a workshop. This group had not agreed to it being used in a publication, because one of them was using it for her PhD thesis and was planning to publish it herself first. This caused a conflict of interest because her colleague was unable to review the paper fairly because he was angry about their data being used and he wanted to stop the paper from being published. To resolve the matter, he contacted the journal editor to explain the situation and they launched a process within the university to stop the other authors (who worked at the same university) from publishing the paper.
Another example of a possible conflict is if a paper is sent to an author’s former supervisor or mentor to review. Judith stated that the PR is required to notify the journal editor of all conflicts of interest and usually withdraw from the review process.