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Peer review is the gold standard for scientific communication, but its ability to guarantee the quality of published research remains difficult to verify. Recent modeling studies suggest that peer review is sensitive to reviewer misbehavior, and it has been claimed that referees who sabotage work they perceive as competition may severely undermine the quality of publications. Here we examine which aspects of suboptimal reviewing practices most strongly impact quality, and test different mitigating strategies that editors may employ to counter them. We find that the biggest hazard to the quality of published literature is not selfish rejection of high-quality manuscripts but indifferent acceptance of low-quality ones. Blacklisting bad reviewers and consulting additional reviewers to settle disagreements can reduce but not eliminate the impact. The other editorial strategies we tested do not significantly improve quality, but pairing manuscripts to reviewers unlikely to selfishly reject them and allowing revision of rejected manuscripts minimize rejection of above-average manuscripts. In its current form, peer review offers few incentives for impartial reviewing efforts. Editors can help, but structural changes are more likely to have a stronger impact.
Substituted the phrase "disinterested referee" with "impartial referee" to avoid confusion in meaning. Relocated table and figures from the end of the document to inside the text.
We derive the probability that a referee is selfish based on their record of reviews and disagreements.