Shifting power relations and the ethics of journal peer review

18 August 2014

Background: Peer-review of manuscripts has recently become a subject of academic research and ethical debate. Critics of the review process argue that it is a means by which powerful members of the scientific community maintain their power, and achieve their personal and communal aspirations, often at others’ expense. This qualitative study aimed to generate a rich, empirically-grounded understanding of the process of manuscript review, with a view to informing strategies to improve the review process. Method: Open-ended interviews were carried out with 35 journal editors and peer reviewers in the UK, USA and Australia. Results: It is clear from this research that relations of power and epistemic authority in manuscript review are complex and dynamic, may have positive and negative features and that even where power is experienced as controlling, restrictive and illegitimate, it can also be resisted. Conclusions: The manuscript review process is best thought of not in terms of simple dominance of reviewers and editors over authors, but rather as a shifting ‘net’ of power relations. These complex power relations need to be understood if reviewers are to be encouraged to participate in the process and to do so in the the most ethical and effective manner.