I was reading this essay about peer review (I have attached the link at the bottom), and there are some interesting “behind-the-scenes” explanations of the process of finding a reviewer and what should be considered before a scientist should accept an offer to peer review a colleague’s work. Some of the points that are brought to light seem intuitive, but it amazes me to see everyday that the educated individuals this effects do not take them into account.
For example, the author asks questions such as, “Do you have the expertise the editor is looking for?” or “Is it too close to your own work?” For the last point point, she says that the selected reviewer should not review the paper because it is a no-win situation. If the reviewer does critique the paper, there is a risk that it could interfere with their own research and subsequent submission of their own paper. If the work of the two scientists are similar and the reviewer approves of other scientists paper, then the reviewer may have a difficult time getting his own research published in the future. So…what should the selected reviewer do? According to the author, the reviewer should read the title and abstract, and if it is similar to their research they should not review the rest of the paper. This seems like the best way to approach the situation, but most times the abstract does not contain enough information to make an educated decision to continue the review. There may be a point while reading the paper that the reviewer realizes that they have similar areas of research. The ethical reviewer should contact the editor and decided to cease the review. Unfortunately, there may be a situation where there are only a few scientists qualified to review the paper because there are very few people in that field of research. When this situation arises, what is the editor supposed to do? I think it will be very difficult to find a reviewer that has enough knowledge in the area of study while not being in direct competition with the author of the paper under review, especially since there will be at least two or three reviewers for each paper. The odds that one of them has a conflict of interest in one of many areas (highlighted in the article) is very likely.
It seems that there are too many “case-by-case” conflicts that can arise in the peer review process. Even the guidelines that are provided leaves room for questions on whether one should review a certain paper. In most cases, contacting the editor seems like the most logical and ethical course of action. From that point, the editor can act as a neutral party that can make the final decision on who reviews which papers based on the information at hand.