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Re-evaluation of solutions to the problem of unprofessionalism in peer review

  • Gerwing, Travis G.1
  • Allen Gerwing, Alyssa M.2
  • Choi, Chi-Yeung3
  • Avery-Gomm, Stephanie4
  • Clements, Jeff C.5
  • Rash, Joshua A.6
  • 1 University of Victoria,
  • 2 Sidney Museum and Archives, Sidney, British Columbia Canada
  • 3 Southern University of Science and Technology,
  • 4 National Wildlife Research Center,
  • 5 Aquaculture and Coastal Ecosystems, Fisheries and Oceans Canada Gulf Region, Moncton, New Brunswick Canada
  • 6 Memorial University of Newfoundland,
Published Article
Research Integrity and Peer Review
Springer (Biomed Central Ltd.)
Publication Date
Feb 16, 2021
DOI: 10.1186/s41073-020-00107-x
PMID: 33588947
PMCID: PMC7885247
PubMed Central
  • Commentary


Our recent paper (10.1186/s41073-020-00096-x) reported that 43% of reviewer comment sets ( n =1491) shared with authors contained at least one unprofessional comment or an incomplete, inaccurate of unsubstantiated critique (IIUC). Publication of this work sparked an online (i.e., Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit) conversation surrounding professionalism in peer review. We collected and analyzed these social media comments as they offered real-time responses to our work and provided insight into the views held by commenters and potential peer-reviewers that would be difficult to quantify using existing empirical tools (96 comments from July 24th to September 3rd, 2020). Overall, 75% of comments were positive, of which 59% were supportive and 16% shared similar personal experiences. However, a subset of negative comments emerged (22% of comments were negative and 6% were an unsubstantiated critique of the methodology), that provided potential insight into the reasons underlying unprofessional comments were made during the peer-review process. These comments were classified into three main themes: (1) forced niceness will adversely impact the peer-review process and allow for publication of poor-quality science (5% of online comments); (2) dismissing comments as not offensive to another person because they were not deemed personally offensive to the reader (6%); and (3) authors brought unprofessional comments upon themselves as they submitted substandard work (5%). Here, we argue against these themes as justifications for directing unprofessional comments towards authors during the peer review process. We argue that it is possible to be both critical and professional, and that no author deserves to be the recipient of demeaning ad hominem attacks regardless of supposed provocation. Suggesting otherwise only serves to propagate a toxic culture within peer review. While we previously postulated that establishing a peer-reviewer code of conduct could help improve the peer-review system, we now posit that priority should be given to repairing the negative cultural zeitgeist that exists in peer-review.

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