An assistant professor submits a research paper for publication in a peer-reviewed technical journal. As part of the journal's standard online submission process, the author is asked to recommend qualified peer reviewers in his field of research.
The author's submission includes the names and email addresses of several academics who, the author claims, are well qualified in terms of interest and expertise to peer-review his paper. Although these individuals are not current peer reviewers for the journal, a member of the editorial staff sends an email to each of them explaining that they have been recommended as peer reviewers for the author's paper and inviting them to undertake the review. Three of those recommended promptly accept, and the journal sends them a copy of the paper.
Two days later the publication's staff is surprised to discover that the three reviewers have already submitted their reviews. Nothing about the reviews themselves is inherently suspicious, each being generally positive and offering one or two suggestions for improvement. However, the staff finds it highly unusual for three volunteer reviewers to prepare such substantive reviews in such a short period.
The journal's staff decides to take a closer look at the individuals who submitted the reviews. At the time of the author's recommendation, the journal had sought to verify the reviewers' credentials merely by checking their names and titles against the listings on their institutions' websites. Now, however, the journal focuses on the contact information provided, and the staff finds that while the names, titles, and mailing addresses correspond to those given on the institutions' websites, the email addresses provided by the author are not institutional addresses but rather addresses that can be readily obtained by an individual, for example, gmail and hotmail addresses.
Members of the journal's staff contact the three individuals again, this time using contact information obtained directly from the institutions' websites. All three individuals deny any knowledge of or connection with the email addresses given by the author and affirm that they have neither read the author's paper nor reviewed it.
When confronted with this information, the author admits to submitting email addresses that he himself created and operated, and he acknowledges that he wrote the reviews himself.
If this case involved an ASCE member, would these actions in submitting false peer reviews of a research paper have violated ASCE's Code of Ethics?
The phrase "publish or perish" is often used to describe the prevailing practice among academic institutions of measuring an individual's fitness for employment, advancement, and tenure by looking at the volume of peer-reviewed work the individual has published. While an approach based on publications may encourage academics to remain at the forefront of their fields and to share their research findings, it is not without drawbacks. The publish or perish mentality may steer some academics toward a narrow emphasis on research that readily lends itself to publication and to pursue work on popular, established topics while discouraging research on innovative topics that may require prolonged effort or offer a smaller likelihood of success.
Of greater importance for the purposes of this column, this institutional emphasis on volume rather than quality of work may induce some researchers to seek the maximum number of publications for the minimum amount of effort and in some cases to cross ethical lines. Researchers may fall prey to the temptation to copy another's work, to falsify or exaggerate research results, or to submit the same or nearly the same paper to more than one publication, in this way deceiving the editors, who believe they are presenting new research to their readers. Indeed, many of the most common types of publishing misconduct can be directly attributed to the pressure on academic researchers and faculty members to continually expand their publishing résumés.
In view of these potential threats, the role of peer reviewers as guardians of publishing integrity is even more significant. In addition to assessing the validity of a paper's technical reasoning and conclusions, a well-read and expert reviewer can-and often does-detect similarities between a submitted paper and a previously published work or signs that a research result has been obscured or manipulated. For this reason, it is a particularly grave offence when an author attempts to circumvent the peer review process by procuring false or biased reviews of his or her work.
Canon 6 of ASCE's Code of Ethics sets a high standard: "Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption." Category (a) in the guidelines to practice for this canon adds the following: "Engineers shall not knowingly engage in business or professional practices of a fraudulent, dishonest, or unethical nature." If this case had involved an ASCE member, it is clear that his or her scheme to guarantee publication by submitting fraudulent reviews would have violated this canon.
Furthermore, because the fraud here involved a professional technical review, this case could, if an ASCE member were involved, be examined under the lens of canon 3: "Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner." Category (e) in the guidelines to practice for this canon states in part that engineers "will avoid any act tending to promote their own interests at the expense of the integrity, honor, and dignity of the profession." As the author attempted to deceive the journal regarding both the source and the objectivity of the reviews, this act would certainly fall short of an ASCE author's obligations under canon 3.
While the scenario presented in this article is not an actual case presented to ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct, it represents an amalgam of facts from actual cases of publishing misconduct uncovered by other scientific journal editors and publishers in recent years. Within the past five years, reports indicate that no fewer than 300 papers in the scientific and technical literature have been retracted because of peer review fraud. These cases have ranged from individual incidents, such as the scenario presented here, to a notorious case in which a so-called peer review ring had created 130 different email accounts to furnish false reviews for some 60 papers published by members of the ring.
In response to this growing problem, some publishers have abolished the practice of accepting reviewer recommendations from authors, while others have sought to combat this misconduct simply through greater vigilance with regard to recommended reviewers. Thus far ASCE has been spared cases involving fraudulent reviewers in its journals. However, it has experienced problems involving duplicate publication and other common forms of research misconduct.
Anyone considering a shortcut in the path to publication should bear in mind not only the strictures of ASCE's Code of Ethics but also the significant consequences of misconduct. The disadvantages experienced by a scholar with a small body of published work in a publish or perish world pale in comparison with the far-reaching and serious consequences of exposure for a willful act of professional misconduct.
Fountain, Henry. "Science Journal Pulls 60 Papers in Peer-Review Fraud." The New York Times, July 10, 2014,
Retraction Watch. "Environmental Journal Pulls Two Papers for 'Compromised' Peer Review," 2016, http://www.