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Graduate students and postdocs around the world who often ghostwrite peer reviews for senior professors and supervisors, receiving no professional credit for their work, end up losing out on morale, said a study based on a survey recently.

The findings of survey posted on the preprint server bioRxiv on 26 April, show that 498 early-career researchers surveyed at institutions in the United States (74%), Europe (17%), Asia (4%) and elsewhere indicate that junior scientists were unhappy about their peer review work without credit. Half of them said that they had ghostwritten a peer review, but 80% of those who did that expressed their view that the practice was unethical.

The survey distinguished ghostwriting from co-reviewing, a well-established practice whereby an invited reviewer shares a manuscript with junior researchers to solicit their assessment of the paper's quality but they get credit for their efforts. On the contrary, with ghostwriting, a principal investigator (PI) uses part or all of a junior researcher's review contributions in his work without giving any credit.

Roughly 75% of survey respondents had co-reviewed and 95% of them said that it was a beneficial practice while 73% found it ethical. Senior researchers felt that ghostwriting is not a widespread practice, but junior researchers found it not surprising at all.

"Co-reviewing and ghostwriting get conflated, and one is used to justify the other as a normal part of training," says study co-author Rebeccah Lijek, a biologist at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. "But they are separable; some can be done as training exercises and some deserve named credit." She said.

Sabina Alam, associate editorial director of medicine and health journals for Taylor & Francis Group, said, "Not knowing who has had a hand in writing the review is totally unethical. It's a system we've allowed to continue for too long." She said it breaches the confidentiality of peer review as editors make publishing decisions based on reviews with an understanding that the person they invited actually wrote the review.

Both co-reviewing and ghostwriting can pose ethical issues, she said. "If a researcher wants to co-review, let the editors know — preferably before you ask a junior colleague — so we can make sure the person is a good fit, free of conflicts of interest."

Alam advises early-career researchers to ask their PI and also seek feedback on their efforts, besides letting the journals know about their contributions. Then, she advised junior researchers to verify their contributions on Publons, an online database for accuracy and plagiarism.

Lijek says the problem can be resolved. "We all agree — we need to fix it."