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.
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”.
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.