Saturday, December 27, 2014

Three observations about anonymity in peer review

I made a vow to myself to not blog about peer review ever again. Oh well. Anyway, I have been thinking about a few things related to anonymity in the review process that I don’t think I’ve heard discussed elsewhere:
  1. Everyone I talk to who has published there has raved about eLife. Like, literally everyone–in fact, they have all said it was one of their best publication experiences, with a swift, fair, and responsive review process. I was wondering what it was in particular that made the review process so much less painful. Then somebody told me something that made a ton of sense (I forget who, but thanks, Dr. Insight, wherever you are!). The referees confer to reach a joint verdict on the paper. In theory, this is to build a scientific consensus to harmonize the feedback. In practice, Dr. Insight pointed out that the main benefit is that it’s a lot harder to give those crazy jackass reviews we all get because you will be discussing it with your fellow reviewers, who are presumably peers in some way or another. You don’t want to look like a complete tool or someone with an axe to grind in front of your peers. And so I think this process yields many of the benefits of non-anonymous peer review while still being anonymous (to the author). Well played, eLife!
  2. One reimagining of the publishing system that I definitely favor is one in which every paper gets published in a journal that only publishes based on technical veracity, like PLOS ONE. Then the function of the “selective journal” is just to publish a “Best of…” list of the papers they like the best. I think that a lot of people like this idea, one which decouples assessments of whether the paper is technically correct from assessments of “impact”. In theory, sounds good. One issue, though, is that it ignores the hierarchy on the reviewer side of the fence. Editors definitely do not just randomly select reviewers, nor select them just based on field-specific knowledge. And not every journal gets the same group of reviewers–you better believe that people who are too busy to review for Annals of the Romanian Plant Society B will somehow magically find time in their schedule to review for Science. Perhaps what might happen is that this new version of “Editor” (i.e., literature curator) might commission further post-publication reviews from a trusted critic before putting this paper on their list. Anyway, it’s something to work out.
  3. I recently started signing all my reviews (not sure if they ever made it to the authors, but I can at least say I tried). I think this makes sense for a number of reasons, most of which have been covered elsewhere. As I had noted here, though, there is “Another important factor that gets discussed less often, which is that in the current system, editors have more information than you as an author do. Sometimes you’ll get 2/3 good reviews and its fine. Sometimes not. Whether the editor is willing to override the reviewer can often depend on relative stature more than the content of the review–after all, the editor is playing the game as well, and probably doesn’t want to override Prof. PowerPlayer who gave the negative review. This definitely happens. The editor can have an agenda behind who they send reviews to and who they listen to. So no matter how much blinding is possible (even double blind doesn’t really seem plausible), as long as we have editors choosing reviewers and deciding who to listen to, there will be information asymmetry. Far better, in my mind, to have reviewer identities open–puts a bit of the spotlight on editors, also.” Another interesting point: as you work your way down the ladder, if you get a signed negative review, you will know who to exclude next time around. Not sure of all the implications of that.
Anyway, that’s it–hopefully will never blog about peer review again until we are all downloading PDFs from BioRxiv directly to our Google self-driving cars.


  1. Interesting approach by eLife. Now I want to publish there even more. PeerJ also has an interesting approach. The reviewer chooses whether s/he wants to be anonymous while the author chooses whether the reviews are published along with the paper.

    I think it is very important to have the reviews along with the paper. That way you already get 2-3 additional opinions on the paper when you read it. It also makes it less painful when your critical review is ignored by the editor and/or the paper is published without the author addressing some major concern of yours.

  2. I believe there should only be two models: double blind reviewing (common in social sciences, but rare in the biological sciences) or signed reviews as the default option. That is, the norm should be shifted to a presumption of signed reviews, so a reviewer needs to ask to have their reviews made anonymous. That won't eliminate biased, tendentious reviewing, but will give pause for thought.

    Michael Wise

  3. To be fair peer reviews are hard to not blog about, especially if your in academia. My friend is a PHD candidate and that is honestly all they talk about. Thank you for giving me a small insight in their world.