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Anonymous peer review

12 Apr Anonymous peer review

I’ve heard a number of people saying anonymous peer review is broken and we need a different publishing model. One where reviewers cannot hide behind their anonymity. I don’t think it is broken. Actually I think anonymity is essential, one of the few things that protects science from politics and human nature. Sure there can be other ways of reviewing, and variety is not so bad. I am following the progress of journals that have other models with interest. The tone of much on the web however is that anonymous peer review is bad, I think this is an important topic and I outline below why I think we need to protect it and even celebrate it.

I would have serious concerns about reviewing if it was not anonymous. I think what I say would be different, and in some ways less honest. Not in the way sometimes implied- that reviewers “hiding behind” their anonymity can unfairly trash papers with no comeback. Good editors can guard against this to some extent. Instead I would feel more exposed, the anonymity is my protection, it is the thing that allows me to be honest. I cannot imagine in a review saying to someone who knows me (as I should do) that their work is trivial, the importance they claim for their work is not supported by evidence, and that they are not well-read enough in their apparent area of expertise. It would probably not be possible to collaborate after that. Yet it sometimes needs to be said. I have had some of these things said to me and I have had to take a long hard look at my work, and make sure I could rationally justify the importance and quality of the work. I am a better scientist for having had to carefully face those questions. I have also said these things (politely I hope) to others in reviews. How people react to blunt comments is, as we all know from everyday life, very variable. Some people hold grudges, some people are aggressive, some people look for revenge for supposed slights, others misinterpret your motives, others resort to criticism of your weaknesses rather than addressing their own. This isn’t good for science. Anonymous review reduces the effects of all this.

I’m not a weak or nervous person. I’m not easily scared or intimidated by anyone. Rightly or wrongly I do not feel particularly worried about my career, nor feel much need for accolades or approval. Yet I still really need the protection provided by anonymous review. I think it is an integral part of my subconscious honesty as a reviewer.

Different fields of biology are very different in the personalities they collect. Some disciplines within biology take constructive criticism constructively, with healthy debate, and evidence-based progress. In other areas the standards are not the same and people respond very differently. I have worked in quite a number of different research and taxonomic areas with some very open, with a healthy reaction to debate and alternative views. Others are not like this, as I have learned to my cost. Alternative views are treated aggressively like religious heresy. Incorporation of rigorous experimental design and hypothesis testing are rejected because the answer is “obvious” or apparently proven, and leading people have usually staked a lot on the current ideas. I could speculate on the psychology I think underlies this, but this isn’t the place. There is one area I work in occasionally only because I know I can abandon it at any point and get on with other things if the huge egos and paranoia start to drown out my ability to do stuff. Some colleagues are specialists and not so fortunate in their ability to resist these pressures since their entire research careers will be spent in the company of the same people. Surely that would influence open identity reviews. It is dangerous to extrapolate from one’s own confidence and security in a positive discipline to what other scientists experience day to day in other areas of science.

It seems to me that we must compare the risks of two things
(1) Reviewers hiding behind their anonymity to maliciously reject manuscripts for reasons of personal prejudice or gain
(2) Reviewers failing to review to the best of their abilities due to either conscious or subconscious concerns of the consequences of their review

Its hard to quantify and assign significance to the relative risks. Gut feelings and anecdotal evidence are largely what we have. My gut and my experience tells me (2) is much more frequent than (1). My concern that provoked writing this is that I have seen lots of comments on this topic but none has strayed far outside considering situation (1). This does not represent the breadth of the necessary debate. I am actually proud of the concept of anonymous review. I think it is something that stands science apart from other areas of life. It could be improved with reciprocally blind review, but it is a fine thing, it is saying ‘tell the truth, and you need not worry about the consequences of that truth’. I think it is something important to defend.



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