Every academic will probably agree that plagiarism is wrong. It is absolutely not OK to pass someone’s else’s intellectual work as one’s own. Plagiarised research papers get retracted regularly, on several occasions plagiarism in dissertation led to withdrawal of doctorate, most notably among several German politicians. There is however one aspect of academic life where plagiarism is so normal that the parties involved  do not even consider it to be plagiarism, neither the plagiarist, nor the victim of plagiarism. It is the academic peer review, the process where research colleagues are invited by journal editors to submit their expert opinion on the scientific quality of the manuscript under editorial consideration. and it is not the incompetent youth plagiarising there, but professors, principal investigators (PIs), research institute directors and clinic heads. Our academic elite plagiarises daily, without anyone even raising an eyebrow. 

In peer review, journals invite experts who are usually scientists with a name in a certain research field, to help the editors make a decision. These experts are generally established academics with many tasks and engagements, and as such they are often too busy to read and evaluate the paper manuscripts sent to them by the journals. Yet often enough the busy professors accept the invitations to peer review anyway, be it for some academic principles, a sense of duty to science, or simply a desire to please the editors of certain elite journals, so their own manuscripts are treated well in return there. Peer review is an intrinsic and crucial part of scientific process, and though many active researchers moan and groan about its load, hardly anyone ever refused to ever do peer review altogether (though there are calls coming to be paid for peer review, unclear from which sources though).

In any case, the manuscript peer review is then delegated to junior lab members, mostly postdoctoral scientists or advanced PhD students. These do all the peer review work, their professors only nods their approval before this reviewer report is submitted back to the journal. And this is where the plagiarism problem starts. Too often, the original authors of the review report go utterly unnamed, the invited professors become the official and the only authors of the reviewer reports, which they pass off as their own work. These senior academics are then sometimes even awarded or publicly acknowledged by the journals for their selfless services of submitting that many peer reviews per year. Which they, in most cases, did not write. The prestige is basically a stolen one.

kneeling chair

The only brain in the lab?

This is an act of plagiarism by any definition, but it is not perceived so for several reasons. First of all: unlike with other bodies of academic writings, those peer review are usually never published. They remain confidential with the journals (though more and more journals switch to publishing peer review reports, mostly unsigned). Then, professors sometimes seem to perceive everything their lab members write as their own intellectual property. This rather bizarre attitude is well demonstrated in the currently ongoing scandal in the Max-Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich, where its director  Martin Keck is accused to have re-used text, verbatim and in large parts, from the doctoral dissertation of his own student, for the purpose of his own so-called “habilitation” thesis (which is a professorship qualification in Germany).  Prof Dr. Dr. Keck apparently re-used the work of his PhD student twice, second time to obtain a second doctorate for himself, according to this SZ article. he apparently does not even deny it, but explains his right for text re-use with the dissertation text being a communal effort. The elite Max Planck Society reacted in 2016 mercilessly to the plagiarism evidence they received, and fiercely dealt with… the anonymous whistleblowers:

Martin Keck’s is becoming victim of increasingly new and sometimes absurd accusations. The President of the Max Planck Society, Prof. Martin Stratmann, has thus made a personal statement to the Süddeutsche Zeitung that “several months ago new anonymous accusations against our clinician have been raised again and again, Whenever the most recent allegations can be cleared without doubt, “a new barrel is being opened”. We can no longer resist the impression that someone is being systematically demoralised here. “ In order to put an end to this completely unacceptable process, Martin Keck has now raised criminal charges against persons unknown. 

The MPI is not willing to sabotage the further development of our house, which has been successfully started with the dedicated assistance of its employees, into a forward-looking research clinic”.

This attitude by our research elite should demonstrate why many see no problem whatsoever with passing peer review reports their employees wrote as their own, with full silent support of their research institutions. But finally, the early career researchers (ECRs) wilfully enter this unfair deal and surrender their intellectual property to their professors as a kind of unpaid ghost-writers. This they feel obliged to, because a postdoc or a PhD student who declines to “help out” with peer review might lose his or her standing with the professor, so refusal is not always a real option.

Ways out

The best way out for both parties would be simply to declare the real author when returning the peer review report, or simply recommend them as alternative reviewers to the journal editors for the beginning, when the review invitation arrives. Yet many professors strangely feel that would dent their authority or reputation, while early career researchers on the other hand either do not know better or do not dare to ask. They should however, because those peer reviewer credits are a valuable asset for the CV, as in fact their plagiarising professors would confirm.

A postdoc in his mid-forties only became aware of such plagiarism relationship he and his professor led for many years once I pointed it out to him. Back in the lab, he declared to his boss only to peer review if the journal invitation is directed or delegated to him officially. His boss was very much surprised, but he accepted.

Even the journals would prefer to know who actually did the peer review, given the situation that it is so hard for them to find for each manuscript enough competent experts who also accept the invitations.  Irene Hames, who works as editorial and publishing consultant, commented to me in an email on the topic of peer review ghost-writing, or plagiarism:

“Journals need to know everyone involved in the review of a manuscript – firstly so they can check on any potential conflicts and know who to contact in case of problems or if they need further information, secondly so that they can acknowledge/reward their reviewers. Also, many journals look at reviewer activity and performance when looking for new editors and editorial board members, so if ECRs are reviewing but not developing reviewing records for journals they are invisible to those journals. Many online manuscript management systems can feed reviews to the new reviewer-recognition platforms, and as review verification is an automatic email linked to the manuscript, those ECRs are also disadvantaged in building profiles on those systems.

So it’s important that any ECRs who might be in the position of not having their names included on reviews they’ve been involved with raise the issue with their PIs and ask that they do include them. But they need to do this in a diplomatic nonconfrontational way and without judgemental accusatory language, eg not using ‘plagiarised’, to stand the best chance of success and not damaging relationships. Showing PIs the COPE Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers can help give authority to their request.

When requests and discussions make no difference and PIs go on submitting reviews as if they’d done them, then that’s unethical and an abuse of power. I’ve known a few cases and they can cause enormous stress, and helplessness because of the power imbalance. Advice then needs to be on a case-by-case basis”.

Do professors understand plagiarism?

I previously ran a Twitter poll about the incidence of such peer review plagiarism. It obtained over 400 votes, and between 1/5 and 1/4 of responders admitted to have been plagiarised by their academic superiors.

However, I cannot exclude that the first answer, due to the way I formulated it, may have confounded both those ECRs who always received their due reviewer credits with those who never were invited to peer review for their professors in the first place. Below, I offer a more fine-tuned open poll, and invite all past and present ECRs to participate.

The problem of peer review ghost-writing is obviously there. Instead, the plagiarism debate largely focuses on the students and their misdeeds alone. Guardian brought in 2013 a headline: “Do students understand plagairism?”. Times Higher Education made in 2016 a scientific fact out of this, by writing “Students ‘don’t understand’ plagiarism, research suggests“. Maybe they don’t, but neither do their professors understand that they are routinely committing plagiarism.

 

32 thoughts on “Peer review ghost-writing, or do professors understand plagiarism?

  1. The article is very binary, pretending it is always lazy supervisors/PIs just accepting the comments and sending them as their own. It misses out the training opportunities. When I did my first peer-review a long time ago, I did not do a good job as I was too impressed by the claims made and not critical enough about the data supporting the claim. I had no advice, nothing to work around and had to invent the wheel myself. Not a nice experience.

    I have asked PhD-students to review papers which I was sent, as a training; and no pressure on them to do it. I will give them previous reviews I have written as examples, pointers about what to look for in general, and then once they have written their draft, have a meeting with them to ask what they think, compare notes and discuss the way the review is written. It gives them an insight in what happens when their own papers are in the system, etc. So there is a significant amount of work done here as PI, much more than if I would just do the review myself.

    I take final responsibility for the review, I submit it. Once they have more experience and more of a track-record, I certainly will suggest the journal to ask them rather than me. But I do not see a jointly prepared review report as “plagiarising student work” as it is presented here. The reality often will have more nuance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment and criticism! However, I hope we agree that even with a jointly prepared peer review the junior researcher should be named as a contributor (of course if their contribution was significant enough, which is also what my article was about)?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If they want that, fine. But as editor I am not bothered about it as long as confidentiality is not broken, and as reviewer I am not bothered either; I don’t do any of these Publons things either.

        I don’t see peer review reports as outputs. Others may disagree. I find the link to plagiarism rather strenuous and unhelpful.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. @Pedro, the question is precisely about when this becomes plagiarism. Look at the replies to Leonid’s polls. It seems to me that about 1/3 of those whose peer reviews were taken think that this is normal and acceptable practice, and the sample is those people in Leonid’s especially concerned circle. The discussion must be opened up, and rules or guidelines should be put in place about what students can expect from PIs.

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      3. Dear Leonid, that´s a very polite reply to someone who openly admits the plagiarism that you condemn in your post. Yes he calls it training. What would you expect. If someone do not has the time to review should not accept it and get credit for it.

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    2. I agree that contributing to peer review is an important training opportunity, and many PIs invite their trainees to contribute for this purpose. However, this is not (and should not) be a reason to not acknowledge the trainee’s contribution. Even if one does not consider a peer review as an official ‘output’, it is an important professional activity that trainees can list on their CVs; therefore, being acknowledged as a contributor of record makes this official.

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  2. If a PI accepts to review and then realizes they can no longer do the work it is very easy to add a note to the editor acknowledging trainee. Better though to ask editor to reassign the trainee as the reviewer.

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  3. Formally speaking, the manuscript under review is provided to the PI confidentially and showing it to his or her underlings may count as a form of misconduct. Some people may be masking the input of junior staff to avoid accusations of violating confidentiality.

    The proper way to proceed would be to reply to the editor “unfortunately I am too busy, but please send a request to my postdoc N.N., who is also an expert on this topic”.

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  4. Leonid Schneider professes:
    “[. . .]

    [. . .] Peer review is an intrinsic and crucial part of scientific process, [. . .]

    [. . .]”

    I disagree. Cf. Paul Colin de Gloucester, “Referees Often Miss Obvious Errors in Computer and Electronic Publications”, “Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance”, 20(3):143, 2013.

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  5. Leonid Schneider professes:
    “[. . .] These senior academics are then sometimes even awarded or publicly acknowledged by the journals for their selfless services of submitting that many peer reviews per year. Which they, in most cases, did not write. The prestige is basically a stolen one.”

    Well complained of.

    Yours sincerely,
    Colin Paul de Gloucester

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  6. Leonid Schneider professes: “[. . .]
    [. . .] is accused to have re-used text, verbatim and in large parts, from the doctoral dissertation of his own student, for the purpose of his own so-called “habilitation” thesis [. . .]”

    Ha ha! This is a good example to show to persons who pretend that supposed supervisors are always better than underlings.

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  7. As an editor, I routinely included a statement in review invitations that it was OK to have a graduate student or postdoc review the article, as long as this contribution was acknowledged and the PI took final responsibility. I made sure as much as possible, that such students/postdocs were included in the annual “thank you” note to reviewers (not a trivial thing, because the online submission/review system did not allow for this, so I had to maintain a list by hand of these additional reviewers.

    As a reviewer, I often handed manuscripts to my students/postdocs/junior collaborators and handled them as outlined above: I would mention the contribution of the junior person to the editor, while taking final responsibility. This implied that I would go over the manuscript myself, go over the student’s comments and edit them where necessary, and then go over everything with the student, explaining to them why I had made certain changes, what they did well/wrong, etc. I feel that this is an essential part of the training of a scientist. As the contribution of the student was acknowledged, I don’t see any problem with plagiarism here.

    As for the re-use of the thesis mentioned above, I do not have enough information to judge this. Let me therefore tell you about my own thesis experience (written in 1982/1983, defended January 1984). After having the plan for my (written) thesis (with good justification: it was baaaaaad…) ripped apart by my supervisor and setting up a new plan, I would gradually fill in chapters, subchapters, and sections. Whenever a piece of text was ready, it would go to my supervisor. He would go through it and propose extensive changes, which we would discuss and I would accept better than 80% of his modifications, because they were clear improvements. The remaining 20% usually was something where I had expressed myself unclear (a frequent beginners error made by people who are close to their subject and don’t realize that what seems obvious to them is not so obvious to someone else). Once my supervisor and I were done, the text would go to the head of our department. He was a bit more removed from our specialty (mouse behavior genetics) and uncovered a lot of those cases where text was not clear for non-specialists. His comments, too, resulted in significant changes to the text.

    When I submitted the theses, I was listed as sole author, with my supervisor and the department head listed in the acknowledgments. When the time came to publish the results, my supervisor was, of course, last author. We offered a co-authorship to the department head, but he declined, saying that his contribution had only been textual/linguistic. I thought and still think that he was too modest, but we followed his wish.

    What is clear from the above is that the text of my thesis was not the result of the efforts of one person. I think it would only be the work of one person if I had had completely incompetent supervisors, who just had let me write my stuff, looked it over, and then simply okay it. In the Netherlands, we don’t have a habilitation, but if my supervisor would have had to write a habilitation thesis, I would have been completely comfortable with him including whatever part of my thesis he liked (and I’m sure he would have thanked me for discussion/reading/whatever).

    Conventionally, theses are submitted as single-author works, even though everybody knows that competent supervisors usually make a huge contribution. Without knowing which type of supervisor Keck is, I cannot tell whether I think he’s guilty of plagiarism or not, but from the forgoing it should be clear that his defense sounds very plausible to me.

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    1. PS: Just a small addition to the above: Once a trainee is in my opinion capable of performing a review independently, I decline the review invitation myself and recommend my trainee as a reviewer to the editor.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Dear Wim, thanks for your comment. Your approach to sharing peer review is the absolutely correct one.
      About dissertations: those can indeed only have one author (though Macchiarini supervised an MD dissertation at MHH which had two medicine students as official authors. But normal laws or ethics seem not to apply to Hannover Medical School). In Keck’s case an appropriate way would probably be to quote from the thesis using quotation marks, while declaring to have contributed to it as supervisor.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Leonid, You’re right that (at least in Germany, not sure about other countries) occasionally two students can co-author an MD thesis (I’ve never seen it for PhD, but perhaps that happens, too). I should have been more precise: a doctoral supervisor cannot be listed as co-author on a student’s thesis, even if the thesis is very much a co-production (like mine was; and I didn’t mention yet how successful the process was in my case: after that writing/learning experience, I was able to write manuscripts in English -not my maternal language- independently).

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    3. There are very good reasons why the supervisor is not a co-author of a thesis. A PhD thesis is supposed to be proof that the individual has mastered the topic, not a monograph ghost-written by the PhD supervisor and head of department. When reviewing my own students’ theses, I am very careful to only point out mistakes and flaws, not to rewrite any sentences or inject my own ideas. Perhaps this is what your supervisors did, but sometimes the temptation is to go too far with the editing.

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  8. I think there is quite formal side in this question: reviewers must keep the content of manuscripts confidential. Disclosing the whole manuscript to the members of his own group professor breaks the rule. Unknown to editors PhD student or postdoc has no obligations to journal and free to spread all information around or to use it for own research. However, I think that this problem is rather minor compared to much more common one: direct plagiarism from reviewed manuscripts. The papers are sent very often to direct concurrents and there is certain fraction of dishonest reviewers who take advantage of early view of others work. Even if sometimes these stories become known, professors have zero risc to be punished for plagiarism f that kind. The same story with review of research projects. I am aware of few professors who never have any own ideas but readily use ideas “borrowed” from declined projects or papers. Moreover, once I faced situation when editor rejected our paper with mixed positive/negative reports and few month later published similar results in his own journal providing no citation to our study (by that time published in some other journal). When I contacted chief editor promising big scandal, citation to our paper was actually added but with something like “it come to our attention in process of manuscript prepartion”. I provided citation from editorial decision letter that editor XXX “carefully studied ” our manuscript before taking decision in favor of negative reviewer and against opinion of positive one. He could not claim that he was not aware of our study as it usually happen. It was not junk journal by the way but something very highly rated.

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    1. Angry makes a very important point. Anyone who shares papers that were sent to him and him alone should be charge of violation of peer review rules. Also anyone who has profitted from the review efforts of members of his team should have his name in a black list. For too long have many many professors fed on the work of others. One day someone will tell the story of those blood bloodsucking parasites.

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      1. Sharing manuscript details with one team member does not necessarily break the rule. There are journals explicitly mentioning that sharing the manuscript details with a student / post-doc is possible as long as the editor is aware of it.

        Regarding the other problem, I don’t think one can say that there is a zero risk. Please check the few examples that have been covered by RetractionWatch: http://retractionwatch.com/?s=stolen+peer-review

        @angry: I encourage you to expose the editor publicly since apparently your official request did not succeed. You could for instance post a detailed message on PubPeer.

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    2. Once when I was a postdoc at Cornell my Boss invited me and 2 other lab members to discuss a manuscript, but he strongly stressed that manuscript content was to be kept confidential. I think the editors were aware of the situation, so besides everything that I have against him, it seems to me at this point he acted correctly

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      1. But…indeed I was totally explored when writing a grant…the grant was totally wrote by me but my name don’t even came in the grant and third people got advantage of the grant as well

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  9. This applies also to writing research grant proposal. Often I’ve been asked by PI to assist in writing grants. I do admit that by doing this, it improved my proficiency in writing research proposals. On the other hand, not only that I did not receive credit for that, it also wasted a valuable time. The latter is more annoying than the lack of credit, because I do not think a postdoc should receive any credit – research proposals are the duty of the PIs. There are given to the PI to run the lab, not to the postdoc/student. For that purpose, they write their own proposals for scholarships/fellowships.
    But what can I do? As a grad student, I accepted the task of writing peer reviews because I enjoyed it and I was too naive to be acknowledged. As a postdoc, sometimes I agree, knowing that if I do a good job, it increases the chances of being funded. Eventually my research is directly or indirectly supported by the same grants.

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    1. Similar to teaching a student/postdoc how to review an article for a journal, I think a good PI also teaches his students/postdocs how to write grant proposals. It’s a serious omission if they don’t do so, because then postdocs upon obtaining their first independent position have no clue how to go about obtaining funding, which puts their research career in serious jeopardy. That learning experience most certainly is not a waste of valuable time, but invaluable in itself. If, on the other hand, your PI needs you to write their grant applications because they cannot come up with research ideas for themselves (i.e., this is not a learning experience for you), then you’re simply in the wrong lab and should look for a different postdoc soonest.

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      1. Well, I totally agree it’s training as long as it is organized that way. In other words, working together, discussing the science, the results and the writing style. Many times, it’s not. I prefer not to further discuss it in public, but the reality is that the relationship between a PI and his/her “trainees” is not always didactic and supportive.

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  10. Most journals I review for have a box that lets you acknowledge the name of the postgrad who helped in the review. I see letting a postgrad review a paper as a significant training opportunity and will always acknowledge their contribution (and moderate the review/give feedback to the student).

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    1. Its so nice that academia have such good Samaritans. It woul not be much better and much more fairer that posdocs start be invited directly by editors to review when they published a minimum number of papers instead of serving as help to PI/Professors ?

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