Whatever the size, when schools act unethically, it's a problem. We can and should shame them, without punching down.

Lenny Teytelman May 06, 2016

RetractionWatch reported yesterday about a bizarre press release from Penn College: College retracts press release about sociologist reviewing manuscript.

In the press release, the college was explicit regarding the title of the paper under review in the journal Contemporary South Asia. The journal is published by Taylor and Francis, and it is clear that their peer review is expected to be anonymous, "All research articles in this journal have undergone rigorous peer review, based on initial editor screening and anonymized refereeing by referees."

I am a strong advocate of open and transparent peer review. However, until we get there, if you submit to a journal that promises anonymous peer review, you have every right to expect that this is the case. Otherwise, thanks to the press release above, everyone knows if the paper was rejected. Penn College clearly knows the press release is inappropriate because they retracted it.

Unfortunately, the above press release is no isolated incident. Quick search shows a plethora of such disturbing announcements.

I took part on an NSF panel within the past year. We were all reminded countless times that this is strictly confidential. Reviewers for NSF cannot mention the date, place, or name of the track for which they served. The confidentiality rules vary by agency, and the NIH is open about members of the study sections (see note below). I am not sure about the other agencies mentioned in Penn College press releases, but given their lack of attention to such details, I doubt they are looking up the specific confidentiality expectations.

I know that serving as a peer reviewer for journals, conferences, and grant study sections is an academic service. The faculty who serve on NSF panels request letters to submit to their university as part of their annual activity reports. Such service counts towards tenure and promotion. My guess is that the Penn College is channeling these reports from faculty directly to the press office. If this is the case, it's unethical and harmful.

There were many social media comments regarding this yesterday. Many made fun of the college and the individual faculty; some of the tweets were downright mean and derogatory. That's wrong and misguided. The conduct of the press office at Penn College in no way reflects on the academic rigur of the faculty. However, let's be clear - Penn College being a non-R1 institution does not excuse unethical behavior by the press office. Retraction Watch was right to report on this. The press office behavior is inexcusable, but we should make sure to make fun of it and criticize it without being demeaning to the school and its faculty.


[Note 5/6/2016] Originally, I wrote, "Reviewers for NSF cannot mention the date, place, or name of the track for which they served. I strongly suspect the same is true for the NIH, but the press release above gives explicit information on the particular study section in which Professor. Yang was to participate." Pat Schloss and Mark Mandel kindly pointed out to me that the NIH study sections are not anonymous. I edited the paragraph to reflect this.