By Jason Riley, PhD
What is recusal and when is it necessary? To recuse is to remove oneself from participation—in our case as a reviewer—to avoid a real (or perceived) conflict of interest. At the latest Research Ethics Lunchtime Discussion, Dr. Sergey Leikin recounted his experiences with this topic. His conclusion: recusal is a difficult matter, not made any easier by the fact that most journals have vague rules regarding reviewer ethics. Over the course of the meeting, the group discussed various cases that can arise and debated ethical decisions for each situation.
The good news is that some conflicts of interest are easier to identify; for example, if you work in the same lab as the author or if your research or position depends on a source of funding that will directly benefit from the publication (or not) of the manuscript.
While clear-cut cases do exist, recusal is often a gray area. What should you do in the event that you are asked to review a paper with an author you know personally? While some quickly call this unethical, Dr. Leikin argues that it can be ethical to serve as a reviewer in this circumstance if you are not linked to the work. Some fields may have only a handful of qualified reviewers; therefore eliminating all reviewers in a small research community could lead to solid scientific data not being published. Where is the ethical line then?
For the gray area situations, Dr. Leikin suggests that a reviewer should refer anything that might represent a conflict of interest to the editor. Remember though, it is still the reviewer's decision to recuse himself if he is uncomfortable, even with the editor's approval. In a more drastic approach, some might choose to recuse themselves from all reviewing opportunities to avoid a conflict of interest. It is to our benefit, however, to review for as many journals as possible—think resume-builder—and ethically we have a responsibility to review. Most journals use two to three reviewers per paper, so as a rule of thumb, an author is responsible for two paper reviews per first-author paper produced (as a "minimum" guideline).
Ethical decisions require ample contemplation and self-examination. We are capable of arriving at the best possible conclusions, but it is critical to have the proper information and tools to guide our decisions. To learn more about making ethical decisions, check out the hyperlink below or attend one of the numerous ethics courses and lectures offered by the NIH.
For further thoughts and information see the following hyperlink: http://publicationethics.org/