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Reviewer blind dating with Charlesworth Knowledge

 

As discussed in other recent posts (here, here, here, and here), the peer review process forms the bedrock of scientific publishing. Indeed, papers are considered ‘valuable’ and ‘worth reading’ by colleagues (and therefore citing) only if they have passed through peer review. Early career researchers (ECRs) should therefore jump at the chance to provide peer review for journals in their field, not least because this process provides valuable experience in the constructive critical assessment of other people’s work.

 

One recent survey of more than 128,000 submitted manuscripts notes that, of the three main kinds of peer review currently utilised commonly by journals (i.e., completely open, single blind, and double blind), it’s the latter that is preferred by both authors and reviewers and actually seems to lead to higher-quality papers at the end of the day. Double-blind peer review refers to the fact that the identity of both authors and reviewers is known only to the editor; the names and institutions on submitted manuscripts are removed before papers are sent to peer reviewers, and identities are scrubbed in both directions.

 

I used to have qualms about blind peer review as an editor, but I’ve been convinced by experience that this is the best way to go. Peer reviewers (and authors) are human and so there is always a tendency to go easier on people you might know, like, or have worked with in the past. Although reviewers are supposed to declare conflicts of interest prior to accepting to work on someone else’s study (they worked together in the past, person x was the supervisor of person y, etc), this very rarely happens.

 

As an example, I recall a situation I was involved in a number of years ago when asked to act as a peer reviewer for a prestigious international journal. The kind of publication that can make a career. Except that the lead author of the study I was asked to review was a friend of mine and I thought the article was not up to scratch. I flagged my friendship with the author of this paper with the journal editor but was asked to proceed anyway (‘we’ve had real issues securing reviewers to work on this paper’, a pretty standard response). What should you do in such a situation?

 

On the one hand, the chance to act as a peer reviewer for a prestigious journal can be very valuable experience both in terms of access to current literature and ideas as well as to top journal editors, but I nevertheless felt really bad. It’s tough to be negative about the work of others, I find, and even more so when one of the authors is a friend. How would he/she have reacted if they ever found out that I was part of the reason that their paper got rejected? Double-blind peer review is the solution here: no-one need ever know and you can be honest and objective about the work of others without fearing any fallout, professional or personal.

 

Double-blind peer review turns out to be particularly popular amongst authors from ‘less-prestigious institutions’. This is because people do tend to feel that they are disadvantaged in the peer review process depending on country of origin and institution. I’ve noted this too in my travels delivering workshops for Charlesworth Knowledge; it’s fair to say that people in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, for example, feel that their papers do have less chance of acceptance in peer-reviewed journals than those of their counterparts from, say, Germany or Poland. All English as a second language (ESL) countries, after all.

 

Part of the problem here is reviewer bias, no question. Sadly, all the data and surveys conducted in this area show that if you actually did go on a blind date with a typical peer reviewer, chances are he would be white, from western Europe or North America, and English-speaking.

 

 

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