Conflict of Pinterest: Is Social Media a Conflict of Interest Source in Academic Peer Review?
September 12, 2017
By Jeff Clements, Ph.D.
In 1665, the concept of scholarly peer review was introduced by Henry Oldenburg, the founding editor of the scientific journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society —a highly regarded journal that continues to publish high-quality science today. In general, the process of peer review involves submitting one’s work to scrutiny by topical experts in a given field of research. Such a process is meant to serve a gatekeeping function, preventing the propagation of sub-par or incorrect scholarly information among research disciplines, thus ensuring that only accurate and truthful information populate scientific knowledge. Although it was introduced more than 350 years ago, scholarly peer review remains a cornerstone of contemporary science, and it is important for ensuring scientific validity and rigor.
While many factors play a role in ensuring ethical and responsible peer review, and the process itself is far from perfect, avoiding conflicts of interest is an important aspect of peer review for ensuring that reviewers provide honest and unbiased critiques on a piece of scholarly work. With respect to peer review, conflicts of interest can present themselves in any situation where the reviewer may be financially, professionally, or personally involved with the authoring researcher(s). Such connections between reviewers and authors can potentially result in a lack of critical judgement during peer review and lead to a breakdown of scientific integrity. Although scientists are typically diligent in avoiding conflicts of interest, researchers, like billions of other individuals on this planet, are finding new and innovative ways of connecting in the online world. This begs the question of how these novel connections might impact conflicts of interest?
One relatively novel way of establishing contact is through social media. While social media primarily serve a social purpose, many platforms have been utilized by scientists for outreach and communication purposes (among others; e.g., online collaboration and knowledge exchange). One platform that has been highly popular among the scientific community is Twitter. With Twitter, users can tailor their following to include other users with shared interests. In a world of online communication, however, people with common interests can often feel emotionally and personally connected with online contacts prior to meeting and engaging with them physically.
Although maintaining personal relationships seems to require physical contact, it is apparent that personal connections can flourish online when individuals connect regularly and share common interests; indeed many of us who participate in social media have the experience of feeling connected to one of our followers despite never even meeting in person. Thus, because scientists often share similar views and have become more active on social media in recent years, it seems likely that virtual relationships through social media such as Twitter have the potential to create conflicts of interest.
From my own perspective, this potential downside to the connections between social media and peer review became apparent when I was recently invited to review a manuscript written by a close Twitter follower (we interact multiple times weekly). I graciously declined to review the manuscript because I felt that I may not have been able to give a fair and unbiased review of the manuscript. The primary author is someone that I have never met in person or have had any personal or professional connection with previously, aside from a close connection on Twitter.
So I began to wonder: how often does #ScienceTwitter get asked to review the work of close Twitter followers, how do potential reviewers respond in such situations, and does this have the potential to compromise the integrity of impartial peer review? While the latter question would require an in-depth, quantitative study, the former two questions could be addressed relatively easily; I addressed them by conducting a simple survey of #ScienceTwitter using a Twitter poll. Interestingly, results suggested that it is not uncommon for scientists on social media to be asked to peer review the work of close Twitter followers, as more than a third of respondents (36%) reported that they had been asked to review a paper for a close Twitter follower. Furthermore, of those asked to review the work of close followers, 92% accepted to review the work!
#ScienceTwitter: Have you ever been invited to review a manuscript or grant authored by a close Twitter follower? Did you accept? Please RT!— Jeff Clements (@biolumiJEFFence) August 27, 2017
Although the Twitter poll does not provide sufficient evidence to say that social media introduces bias in peer review, it does suggest that we may readily review the work of researchers we have formed personal relationships with in a digital realm. While scientists are typically good at detecting and avoiding conflicts of interest, social media is still a novel tool for scientists, and is inherently different from traditional forms of online communication such as e-mail. The real-time, frequent, and regular communication with a person on social media, accompanied by visual reference of who that person is (i.e., their profile picture), distinguishes social media from traditional e-mail communication.
Scientists using social media may reject the notion that close social media contact with another researcher constitutes a conflict of interest, when it may inherently bias objectivity during core academic processes such as peer review. This, to me, seems inherently problematic yet not widely recognized, and further underscores the benefits and need for a fully blinded peer-review system (or maybe a fully open peer-review system?).
Questions remain, however. Do social media relationships truly constitute a conflict of interest and can they introduce bias into the peer-review process? If so, how do we take this into account, particularly given the increasing difficulty for some journals to find peer reviewers?
Regardless, one thing is clear: given the increasing connectivity of scientists using social media to communicate, this topic is worthy of research and is something that we should seriously consider.
So what do you think—do you envision social media a source of conflict of interest in scholarly peer review and how big of a problem do you think it might be? Let us know what you think via Twitter or in the comments section below!
*An earlier version of this post was first published on the author’s blog on August 27, 2017 (marineecologistmusings.wordpress.com)
Jeff Clements (@biolumiJEFFence) is an NSERC Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Gulf Region). His research interests lie in how global change stressors shape the behaviour and physiology of marine organisms and how such behavioural and physiological changes can influence population and community ecology. Alongside his core research, Jeff is a strong proponent of open science and is interested in the academic and scientific use of social media.