I’ve noticed that junior scientists tend to be really picky about conflicts of interest, whereas senior scientists don’t tend to be sticklers.
I don’t think this is necessarily nefarious. I think senior scientists have come to terms with having some kind of history with a lot of people in their field. For example, let’s say I’m looking for reviewers of a manuscript. A doctoral candidate or a postdoc might express concern that they coauthored a paper with one of the middle authors of the manuscript a few years back. A more senior researcher probably wouldn’t even blink at that relationship as a potential conflict of interest. It’s a small world.
That said, some people (independent of career stage) are less inclined to volunteer conflicts of interest when reviewing the work of their peers. There clearly are some people out there who have few qualms about reviewing work of people who they have close relationships with, and also recommending friends to review their own work. Other people take the guidelines for conflict of interest a lot more seriously. Sometimes, the person in charge of a review process (for a manuscript or a grant or an award or whatever) won’t be positioned to know whether these conflicts exist and sometimes it’s hard to tell.
The funny thing is we’re expected to demur from reviewing when we have a close positive relationship with someone, but not when anybody has a robust negative relationship with you. So if you happen to be cursed with an academic enemy, then they’re not expected to say “no” when asked to review your manuscript, but if there’s someone you are great friends with and publish together all of the time, they’re expected to volunteer such a connection and say “no.” Of course, if you have someone who is out to get you (and once in a while, there really are such people), you can list them as as a non-preferred reviewer and an ethical editor will make sure that they won’t see it. But this approach has its limits, because when someone is out to get you, you might not be aware of who they are.
There are also some other conflicts of interest that rarely get discussed, but is something we should talk about. For example, what about when you are asked to review the work of someone who you know is a malevolent or exploitative supervisor? What if you’re asked to review the manuscript of someone in your field who sexually harassed you, or someone you work with? We haven’t established any community norms for such circumstances.
Another generally awkward thing about conflicts of interest during peer review is being colleagues and/or friends with the people whose work you’re reviewing. I mean, there are a lot of people out there who I’ve worked with in some way. We’ve collaborated, or have been a student on a field course I’ve taught, or maybe on a collecting trip together, or we’ve had plenty of socializing time. What’s the difference between a professional colleague and a friend, and a friend and a close friend, and where is a line that defines where the conflict of interest lies?
I think NSF does peer review really well, and they’ve got a very unambiguous set of criteria about what relationships constitute a conflict of interest. There are specific guidelines for what constitutes a “recent collaborator,” which I think vary by directorate as well. These are pretty solid guidelines, but they still don’t address the fact that there are personal relationships that don’t fall under any of these categories.
There are some people out there who I haven’t collaborated with recently who I consider to be good friends, and who are working closely enough in my field that I might end up being asked to review their stuff. I am sure that’s a real situation for lots of senior scientists. The guideline, “If you feel that it’s a conflict, then it’s a conflict” goes a long way. But if we all were asked to not review the work of people who we personally know well and have positive feelings for, then the cogs of peer review would get jammed up pretty quickly.
I don’t think we have a massive peer review crisis in science — and I don’t think I’m giving preferential reviews to anybody on the basis of prior relationships. But I am frustrated that there is essentially an uneven playing field — that once you’ve been in the game for a while, then your professional network is comprised of a lot of people who have good feelings about you and are may be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt in the review process. Meanwhile, the review process doesn’t have such an environment for people shifting into new fields, nor for junior scholars who are without the safeguard of a senior author with lots of buddies.
There’s definitely the old boys’ network in some sub-subdisciplines, that keeps new people out. But even in the absence of that kind of situation, there still is a network of men and women who’ve been around for a while. The guidelines for conflicts of interest don’t have anything to say about this, and I don’t see a simple way forward.
One proactive step would be use to use double-blind review. After all, most scientists think that double-blind is best. While reviewers often claim that they know who the authors are, there is a big difference between guessing and knowing. And when they do guess, they’re as wrong as often as they are right. In some subfields, it’s only a rarity that the reviewers could identify the authors. Single-blind review benefits people with seniority, after all.
[By the way, I should add that I haven’t had any recent review experience that caused me to write this post. It’s just been a set of ideas in my queue for a long while, and I’ve finally got around to writing the post.]