Should you perform ghost peer review for someone else, such as an advisor or a senior colleague?

Getting someone else to write your academic papers or grant proposals is considered unethical, but a new survey reported in Nature shows that large numbers of graduate students globally are regularly asked by their advisors or senior colleagues to ghostwrite peer reviews. This is sold to early career researchers (ECRs) as a great opportunity:

‘I’ve received a peer-review request from x prestigious well-known journal, but I don’t have the time. Would you be interested in taking this on? It’ll be good for your career’ (or words to that effect).

The problem here is that more than half of survey respondents received no credit or chance to relationship-build with a publishing house, journal or editor as the peer review they wrote was then signed off by the senior colleague. Is this even ethical?

Our view

As a member of COPE, Charlesworth’s position is clear. Peer review is no different to any other kind of critical and creative work: if you write something, you deserve the credit and any resultant opportunities that might arise. Indeed, 80% of ECR survey respondents noted that they felt that the practice of ‘ghosting’ peer reviews was unacceptable.

The alternative of co-review

One alternative here and something that is welcomed by journal editors, is ‘co-review’. As editors, we very often receive emails from colleagues we’ve reached out to for peer review saying things like:

‘Thanks for the opportunity. I’m very pushed for time, but I’m working with a PhD student who would relish the chance to review this paper. Can we do this together?’

This is great for ECRs for several reasons: they get mentored in the peer review process by an advisor or senior colleague; they get access to the primary ‘currently under review’ literature in their field, and they get the chance to build a relationship with a journal and subject-area editor by virtue of the fact that their name is now out there in the peer-review pool. Chances are they will get asked again when another opportunity for peer review comes along. In contrast to ‘ghosting’, around 75% of survey respondents said that they had co-reviewed; 95% found it to be a beneficial practice, and 73% though it was ethical.

Why ECRs make great peer reviewers

We know that ECRs make good, critical, thorough and careful peer reviewers. A range of studies have shown that people in early stages of their careers, anxious to make a good impression, are likely to put much more time into the peer-review process and are thus going to perform well. Many journal editors actively seek out a younger up-and-coming colleague in partnership with an older, more established figure to review papers in order to form a balanced view and get a clear range of opinions. How can you get started as a known peer reviewer if you’re not given the chance to sign your own work by your advisor?

In conclusion

Yes, for sure, ghostwriting in all its forms is unethical; publishing companies and journal editors should do more to include younger ECRs in the peer-review process.


At Charlesworth Knowledge, we offer a range of peer-review resources and training to get you started on this part of your academic career ladder. Our workshops, booked via institutions, include training as a peer reviewer. Please get in touch with a member of our team for more information.


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