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The thorny issue of peer review: Should I remain anonymous?

Since peer review week is here, I’ve been thinking about the nature of this process with both my editor and researcher hats on. One of the issues that is most often discussed in the context of peer review is the issue of anonymity; is it better, fairer, more impartial, and more effective for authors to know the names of their reviewers, or not?


On the other side of the coin, should reviewers be allowed access to the names of authors? Academia being academia (a ‘dog-eat-dog world’) and human nature being human nature, perhaps ‘double-blind’ peer review is the best solution here: neither author nor reviewer knows who the other is, thus preserving anonymity and ensuring an impartial and fair process.


In my experience, although increasing numbers of journals are implementing this (or similar policies), the sad fact is that research fields are small, and it always tends to be possible (at least from the perspective of a seasoned peer-reviewer) to identify the authors of papers even if their names are removed from the top of a PDF. Journal editorial offices are also often not as careful as they should be at removing author names from Word and PDF document histories before sending manuscripts out for review.


The peer-review stakes can also be very high, as publication in certain journals can make careers. Ideally, all peer review tasks (if you accept them) should be taken seriously, but there is definitely a lot more cachet to being asked to review or comment on submissions to Nature and Science. These invitations tend to make you feel like you have ‘arrived’ in the field. In these journals, at least at the moment, author names are visible to a reviewer, while the names of peer reviewers are withheld from authors; I think this is a good thing because you want to be able to be honest, constructive, and (if necessary) critical in your review.


I did once have the opportunity to review a paper for Nature that had been written by a number of very close colleagues of mine. Indeed, I considered at least two of the authors on the study to be friends. How to manage this situation? Clearly (and this does happen) it’s very tempting to ‘go easier’ on papers as a reviewer when you know the authors personally; it’s very difficult to do an impartial and fair job in such cases. I do remember that I wrote to the editor and flagged this with him at the time, but was asked to continue anyway with my review, which I did. I also remember that I did not think the study was ‘important and interesting enough for the readership of Nature’ (this is one of the questions on the standard online review form at the time). I did not know, however, who the other reviewers were or what kind of comments they had made about the paper.


It was difficult, though, to meet my friends at a subsequent conference and listen to them complain about the ‘unfair’ reviewer comments they had received about their work. They clearly felt that they should have been published in Nature.


Research fields are small, and so for just these kinds of personal and collaborative reasons I feel that peer-review should be anonymous as default, but that reviewers should always have the option to ‘reveal’ their names to the authors. I also know of people who consider this as something of a badge of honour: ‘I never write anonymous peer reviews’, they say. Right. Until you come across a bad paper written by someone who came to your wedding.