Referees follow a set of rules in how they assess papers. Many journals have their own specific ethical policies which you should read (e.g. the ethical policy of IOP is at authors.iop.org/ethicalpolicy), but there are also some general rules for referees that are common to all journals in science.
IOP Publishing is a member of the Committee for Publication Ethics (COPE), and adheres to the COPE Guidelines and Principles of Transparency and Best Practice. For more information on COPE please see publicationethics.org.
Conflict of interest
Sometimes you may have a potential conflict of interest in reviewing a particular paper. For example:
- You may be a close colleague of the authors
- You may have helped the authors with their work
- You may be involved in a directly competing effort in the same research area
- You may be involved in a business that would benefit from the authors’ work if it is accepted by the journal.
If any of the above apply to you, or if for any other reason you feel uncomfortable reviewing a specific paper, you should inform the journal so they can decide if a different referee is needed. It is OK for you to decline to review a paper if you have a potential conflict of interest, and it is important you declare any such conflict at this early stage to avoid any later accusations of bias.
Papers you are asked to review are confidential
Any paper sent to you for review should be treated as confidential until it is published in a journal. You should not tell others of its contents, or that you have been asked to review it. In some cases, you may find you wish to consult a colleague for a second opinion on a paper, but in that case you should check with the journal first. The authors need to be confident that if they have major new findings to report, no-one will take unfair advantage from having seen the paper as a referee, or try to steal their ideas.
With most journals, including all IOP journals, authors are not told who the referees for their paper are. This anonymity for referees is very important because it allows referees to give honest opinions without fear of damaging any relationship they already have with the authors. Referees’ identities will be known to the journal’s Editors though, so do not say anything in your report that you would not be prepared to justify if required. Names of referees may sometimes also be revealed to members of a journal’s Editorial Board, but this is treated as confidential information and not revealed to the authors. It is important you send your report – even if it is entirely positive – to the journal and not to the authors directly.
Sadly, a minority of authors try to advance their careers unethically by either stealing the work of others (plagiarism) or by trying to publish the same results several times in different places (duplicate publication). Both are considered unethical practices by the scientific community. Referees play an important role in detecting misconduct of this kind. If you suspect that the paper you have been asked to review has been plagiarized, or if you have been asked to review the same paper by another journal at the same time, then you should contact the journals immediately with specific details of what you have discovered. The journals can then investigate further and take appropriate action. Several sophisticated tools exist to help journals detect plagiarism today. For example, IOP journals use CrossCheck – a database of published works that we screen new submissions against to spot any which reproduce material from already-published papers. With such tools, and with the help of vigilant referees, we are better able to stop those who engage in misconduct.