Co-reviewing and ghostwriting by early career researchers in the peer review of manuscripts

Gary S. McDowell, John Knutsen, June Graham, Sarah K. Oelker, Rebeccah S. Lijek

Posted on: 12 May 2019

Preprint posted on 26 April 2019

Article now published in eLife at

Ghost in the machine: widespread uncredited participation by early career researchers in peer review raises ethical flags, but provides opportunities for change

Selected by Dey Lab, Tessa Sinnige


The current academic publication system is predicated almost entirely upon peer review, i.e. the critical evaluation of manuscripts by experts in the field who were not involved in the work. Typically journal editors invite researchers with an established track record of independence to act as reviewers (in the life sciences these will almost always be Principal Investigators or PIs). Often these PIs will in turn ask their co-workers to participate in writing the review. Noting a paucity of literature on the topic, the authors set out to assess the degree of co-reviewing (as a named co-author) and uncredited ghostwriting amongst early career researchers (ECRs) engaged in peer review.


Outcomes of the preprint

The authors surveyed 498 researchers about their peer review experiences. The majority of these researchers were based in the US (74%), but institutions in Europe and Asia were also represented. Some PIs took part in the survey (17%), but the rest of the respondents were classified as ECRs, including both graduate students and postdocs. The majority of respondents were working in the life sciences (65%).

First and foremost, the preprint reports that the practice of ghostwriting is not just anecdotal but widespread. When asked “To your knowledge, did your PI ever withhold your name from the editorial staff when you served as the reviewer or co-reviewer?” 46% of the ECRs assisting a supervisor with peer review answered yes. In line with this, when asked what their contribution to the peer-review process was, 44% chose the answer “I read the manuscript, wrote the report, my PI edited the report and my PI submitted report with only their name provided to the editorial staff”.

Interestingly, the large majority of the respondents do realise that this is unethical practice1. Not only do the co-reviewers go unacknowledged, but this behaviour is in direct contravention of the standard commitment reviewers make to not share a manuscript under review without explicit editorial permission. Why, then, do the ECRs participate in ghostwriting? Answers to this question included: perhaps the PI simply forgot or didn’t know how to include a co-reviewer; it is common practice; it sufficed as a useful training exercise. Reflecting the uneven power dynamic or perhaps simply a gap in communication, even when ECRs knew their name was withheld, 73% did not flag the issue with their PIs.

The survey responses led the authors of the preprint to make several recommendations for improvement. Journals could clarify their policies and their submission systems to make it easier for co-reviewers to be included. Even when used purely as a training exercise, significant improvements could be made: for example, half of the respondents reported that they did not receive any feedback from their PI on their review report. Furthermore, the authors note that, while it is assumed that PIs have the skills to do peer review, many could benefit from additional training. In the absence of formal training, ECRs learn peer review from reading the reviews of their own manuscripts- something that could easily propagate overly critical and unconstructive reviewing habits.

Finally, the authors suggest that ghostwriting is a way of obtaining ‘cheap labour’ in the hypercompetitive system in which PIs need to perform too many tasks that they either do not have time for- or are not qualified for. Moreover, ECRs depend on their PIs for their future careers and do not wish to confront them. This may be why the practice of ghostwriting has become so common, even though the respondents largely consider it unethical.


Outlook and suggestions

Here at preLights, staffed almost entirely by over a hundred ECR volunteers, we are vocal advocates of giving early career researchers a bigger stake in the research enterprise. The peer review system is overburdened and inefficient- one of the main solutions going forward is to have more early career researchers join the pool of reviewers2,3.Provided that an attempt is made to include feedback and formal or informal training, co-reviewing is a fantastic way for ECRs to hone their approach to peer review, gain valuable CV-worthy experience, and even be noticed by editors before going on to become independent reviewers in their own right4. Often overlooked and far less easy to quantify is the fact that peer review can be a particularly productive form of community service- a way to give back while helping science move forward. For ECRs this could be a huge step towards feeling less like “cheap labour” or “mere trainees” and more like the real scientists that we are.

We also suggest that training in peer review need not be only the responsibility of PIs- a classroom setting could work just as well. Many courses for Masters or 1st year PhD students already include journal club or paper review components- these could be easily adapted for formal instruction in constructive peer review. Moreover, our new-found (in the life sciences) ability to compare preprints with the final published versions of papers (and in some cases open peer review reports) provides us with a fantastic opportunity to create a versatile peer review teaching tool- and efforts are underway to do just that, here at preLights and elsewhere.

At the end of the day, though, nothing beats learning by example, and the best way to produce a new generation of ethical and effective reviewers is for ECRs to receive high quality, constructive reviews on their own work. How do we improve the global standards for peer review? One solution could be an individual commitment to general guidelines5 or a reviewer’s charter6 as a prerequisite for being commissioned as a reviewer.

In conclusion, we thank the authors for their work and expect that this preprint will raise awareness about the practice of ghostwriting, hopefully inspiring journals, PIs and ECRs to acknowledge the issues and work together to improve the system of peer review.



  1. Benderly, B. L. Early-career researchers commonly ghostwrite peer reviews. That’s a problem. Science (80-. ). (2019). doi:10.1126/science.caredit.aax9372
  2. Early-career reviewers: Next steps in the Genomics and Evolutionary Biology trial. eLife (2018). Available at: (Accessed: 12th May 2019)
  3. Stephen Burgess. Boosting ECR involvement in peer review – ecrLife. ecrLife (2018). Available at: (Accessed: 12th May 2019)
  4. Early-career researchers: Views on peer review. eLife (2018). Available at: (Accessed: 12th May 2019)
  5. Arjun Raj. RajLab: How to review a paper. RajLab blog (2014). Available at: (Accessed: 12th May 2019)
  6. Mariann Bienz, K. W. A reviewers’ charter. eLife (2012). Available at: (Accessed: 12th May 2019)







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