Is peer review a good way to weed out problematic papers? And if it is, which kinds of peer review? In a new paper in Scientometrics, Willem Halffman, of Radboud University, and Serge Horbach, of Radboud University and Leiden University, used our database of retractions to try to find out. We asked them several questions about the new work.
Retraction Watch (RW): You write that “journals’ use of peer review to identify fraudulent research is highly contentious.” Can you explain what you mean?
Willem Halffman and Serge Horbach (WH and SH): The precise role of the peer review system has long been discussed. Two expectations of the system are more or less universally accepted: peer review is supposed to help improve the quality of a submitted manuscript and it is expected to distinguish between high and low quality work. However, there are quite a few expectations of the peer review system that are not as widely shared. These include expectations such as granting equal and fair opportunities to all authors (regardless of gender, nationality etc.), providing a hierarchy of the most significant published results, or detecting errors or outright fraud in submitted papers. Some claim that peer review cannot be expected to perform such functions, as it was never designed nor meant to do so. Others point out that the peer review and editorial system are increasingly remodelled to detect fraud, supported by recent developments such as text similarity scanners, image manipulation scanners or the establishment of editorial ‘integrity czars’. In addition, when new cases of misconduct come to light, the peer review system is often blamed for not filtering out the fraudulent research before it could enter the academic literature. Researchers talk about peer review as if we all know precisely what it is and what it is for, but there is actually quite some variation hidden under that general term.