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Peer review failures occur when a peer-reviewed article contains obvious fundamental errors that undermines at least one of its main conclusions, when a journal publishes well-known information as a new discovery, or when important valid work is rejected out of hand. Retractions and letters-to-the-editor that correct major errors in articles are common indications of peer review failures.

Peer review, in scientific journals, assumes that the article reviewed has been honestly written, and the process is not designed to detect fraud. The reviewers usually do not have full access to the data from which the paper has been written and some elements have to be taken on trust. Therefore peer review is not considered a failure in cases of deliberate fraud by authors. It is not usually practical for the reviewer to reproduce the author's work, unless the paper deals with purely theoretical problems which the reviewer can follow in a step-by-step manner.

Peer review and plagiarismEdit

Reviewers generally lack access to raw data, but do see the full text of the manuscript, and are typically familiar with recent publications in the area. Thus, they are in a better position to detect plagiarism of prose than fraudulent data. A few cases of such textual plagiarism by historians, for instance, have been widely publicized.[1] On the scientific side, a poll of 3,247 scientists funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found 0.3% admitted faking data and 1.4% admitted plagiarism.[2].

Additionally, 4.7% of the same poll admitted to autoplagiarism[2], in which an author republishes the same material or data without citing their earlier work. An author often uses autoplagiarism to pad their list of publications. Journals and employers often do not punish authors for autoplagiarism, though it is against the rules of most peer-reviewed journals, which usually require that only unpublished material be submitted.

Abuse of inside information by reviewersEdit

A related form of professional misconduct that is sometimes reported is a reviewer using the not-yet-published information from a manuscript or grant application for personal or professional gain. The frequency with which this happens is unknown, but the United States Office of Research Integrity has sanctioned reviewers who have been caught exploiting knowledge they gained as reviewers. A possible defense (for authors) against this form of misconduct on the part of reviewers is to pre-publish their work in the form of a preprint or technical report on a public system such as arXiv. The preprint can later be used to establish priority, although this violates the stated policies of some journals.

Corrective measuresEdit

Many journals deal with peer review failures by publishing letters,[3] though some opt not to do so. Retraction of an article may be required. The author of a disputed article is allowed a published reply to a critical letter. However, neither the letter nor the reply is usually peer-reviewed, and typically the author rebuts the criticisms. Thus, the readers are left to decide for themselves if a peer review failure occurred.


  • "Perhaps the most widely recognized failing of peer review is its inability to ensure the identification of high-quality work. The list of important scientific papers that were initially rejected by peer-reviewed journals goes back at least as far as the editor of Philosophical Transaction's 1796 rejection of Edward Jenner's report of the first vaccination against smallpox."[4]
  • Tai's method, in which the method of Riemann sums for numerical integration was republished in a Diabetes research journal, Diabetes Care.[5] The method is almost always taught in high school calculus, and was thus considered an example of an extremely well known idea being re-branded as a new discovery.

See alsoEdit


  1. Historians on the Hot Seat
  2. 2.0 2.1 Weiss, Rick. 2005. Many scientists admit to misconduct: Degrees of deception vary in poll. Washington Post. June 9, 2005. page A03.[1]
  3. Afifi, M. Reviewing the “Letter-to-editor” section in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 2000-2004. Bulletin of the World Health Organization.
  4. Michaels, David, Politicizing Peer Review: Scientific Perspective in Wagner, Wendy and Rena Steinzor, eds., Rescuing Science from Politics: Regulation and the Distortion of Scientific Research, Cambridge University Press, 2006 p. 224, ISBN 978-0-521-85520-4 Google books excerpt
  5. (1994). A mathematical model for the determination of total area under glucose tolerance and other metabolic curves. Diabetes Care 17 (2): 152–4.
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