Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

When Reviews Attack: Ethics, Free Speech, and the Peer Review Process

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

When Reviews Attack: Ethics, Free Speech, and the Peer Review Process

Article excerpt

Abstract

The peer review process, whether formally applied in publication and grant review, or informally, such as exchange of ideas in scientific and professional newsgroups, has sparked controversy. Writers in this area agree that scholarly reviews that are inappropriate in tone are not uncommon. Indeed, commentators have suggested rules and guidelines that can be used to improve the review process and to make reviewers more accountable. In this paper, we examine the relevance and impact of ethical codes on the conduct of peer review. It is our contention that the peer review process can be improved, not by a new set of rules but through closer attention to the ethical principles to which we, as psychologists, already subscribe.

There seems to be agreement among most psychologists that peer review and commentary are necessary for the effective advancement of science, and are therefore essential in our field. These activities are wide ranging and include manuscript and grant proposal reviews, as well as open peer commentary/debate that takes place both in less formal discussion groups (including Internet forums) as in various journals. A large number of psychologists have had consider-able experience at both the giving and receiving ends of peer review. The following examples that we recently became aware of prompted us to discuss the tone of peer reviews, ad hominem attacks (i.e., attacking to the individual rather than disputing or debating an idea), and the ethical issues involved in the review process. Several months ago, a young investigator applied for (and obtained) a major research grant from a national agency. This investigator had applied under the agency's "new investigator program." A more senior researcher was listed as co-investigator in the application. While four of the reviews of the grant proposal were positive and recommended that the project be funded, one reviewer expressed the opinion that the project should not be funded because the ideas outlined in the proposal were not the "new" investigator's but belonged to the more senior researcher, who was really the "mastermind" behind the work. The accusation completely ignored the fact that the researchers had signed a declaration about the veracity of the proposal and the ideas therein. More importantly, the reviewer described no evidence that led him or her to make this accusation. Many persons who develop their own scientific ideas could have found such a view personally offensive on a number of levels.

In following up on this experience, we discussed this situation with a number of our colleagues. Somewhat to our dismay, we discovered that inappropriate or ad hominem remarks are not uncommon. One colleague had received a comment that the revision to a paper should be started by burning the entire manuscript. Another was described by a reviewer as being "arrogant" because he expressed a view that is inconsistent with the beliefs of most of his colleagues. Moreover, a review of the literature suggested that this issue is not a new one. Based largely on their personal experiences as writers, reviewers, and editors, other psychologists have described problematic reviews as "mean-spirited," "an avenue for professional nastiness," "cursory," and "overly caustic" (e.g., Fine, 1996; Levenson, 1996; Rabinovitch, 1996).

Since we are of the opinion that collegiality and civility are important elements of professionalism, we were very surprised when this issue was debated on the Internet forum of the Society for the Study of Clinical Psychology (SSCPnet). The SSCPnet is a section of the Society of Clinical Psychology (Division 12 of the American Psychological Association [APAI). Any member of Division 12 of APA can join this group and interact with other members via an e-mail - based discussion of various topics suggested by group members. With topics ranging from statistical methodology to questions about patient referrals, SSCPnet is meant to be a forum for the scholarly exchange of ideas related to scientific clinical psychology. …

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