Oct 22, 2014

Reexamining Reviewer Anonymity - More Costs than Benefits


Academic publishing dogma holds that peer reviewers (aka referees) should be anonymous. In the vast majority of cases, however, there are more costs than benefits to reviewer anonymity. Here, I make the case that reviewer identity and written reviews themselves should become publicly accessible information. Until then, reviewers should sign their reviews, as this practice can increase rigor, expose biases, encourage goodwill, and could serve as an honest signal of review quality and integrity.

Why reviewer anonymity solves nothing

The story goes that anonymity frees the reviewer from any reputational costs associated with providing a negative review. Without the cloak of invisibility, reviewers who provided devastating critiques would then become the target of attacks from those debased authors. Vengeful authors could sabotage the reviewer’s ability to get publications, grants, and tenure.

It’s imaginable that these vengeful authors who have the clout to sabotage another’s career might exist, but I’m willing to bet that few careers have been injured or sidelined due primarily to a bullying senior scientist. It’s difficult to say whether the absence of these horror stories is due to a lack of vengeful saboteurs or a lack of named reviewers. If you’re aware of rumored or confirmed instances of a scorned author who exacted revenge, please let me know in the comments section below.

Let’s appreciate that our default is to be onymous1. Without hiding behind anonymity, we manage to navigate our careers, which often includes being critical and negative. We openly criticize others’ work in commentaries, at conferences, in post-publication reviews, and on Facebook and Twitter. Editorships are not the kiss of death, even though their names appear at the bottom of rejection letters. Sure, editors typically have tenure and so you might think that there are no costs to their onymous criticism. But they also still attempt to publish and get grant funding, and their criticism, in the form of rejection letters, probably doesn’t hinder this. Moreover, for every enemy you make by publicly criticizing their work, in the form of post-publication reviews for example, you probably recruit an ally. Can’t newfound allies influence your ability to get publications, grants, and tenure just as much as adversaries?

JP de Ruiter, who wrote an excellent piece also questioning anonymous peer review, offered a simple workaround to the problem of the fearful young scientist criticizing the senior scientist: “Reviewers with tenure always sign their reviews.” This is great, but my fear is that most reviews are written by untenured scientists, so the problems associated with reviewer anonymity will remain with this rule in place. My advice to the untenured and those on, or soon to be on, the job market would be the same: sign all reviews. Even negative reviews that recommend rejection should be signed. Needless to say, negative reviews need to be written very carefully. Drawing attention to flaws, fatal or otherwise, can be done with tact. Speaking tentatively will take the sting out of any criticism. In the review that the author (or public) sees, you can suggest a more appropriate analysis or alterative explanation, but in the private comments to the editor, you can emphasize how devastating these shortcomings are. Keep in mind that reviewers do not need to communicate their recommendation (i.e., accept, revise, reject) in the review that the authors see. In fact, most editors prefer the recommendation be kept separate from the review. This allows them more freedom with their decision. Also, newly minted PhDs and postdocs should keep in mind that there are practices and laws in place so that a scorned search committee member cannot make a unilateral decision.

A second worry is that, without anonymity, reviewers would have to worry about being critical of a known colleague’s (and sometimes a friend’s) work. With anonymity, they’re free to criticize any manuscript and maintain favorable relationships with the authors. But if you’re worried about hurting a colleague’s feelings by delivering an honest and critical review, then you shouldn’t be a reviewer. Recuse yourself. Or maybe you shouldn’t infantilize your colleagues. They’ve probably learned to keep personal and professional relationships separate, and they would surely prefer an honest and constructive review, even if it was accompanied by some short-lived emotional pangs.

A third worry about reviewer transparency might be that it could produce credulous or timid reviews. I don’t see this as a serious threat. Even in the light of onymity, reviewers will still demand good evidence. Identified reviewers will still provide the occasional dismissive, sarcastic, and insulting review. I’m certain of this because of my history of providing brutal, onymous reviews and because of those few that I’ve received. Even with my name signed at the bottom, I’ve written some things that I would find difficult to say to the author’s face. I’m not inappropriate, but I can be frank.

Moreover, the concern that identifying reviewers will lead to overly effusive reviews is alleviated when we appreciate the reputational costs associated with providing uncritical reviews. No one wants their name in the acknowledgements of a worthless paper.

Five benefits of reviewer transparency

1) Encourage goodwill. Obviously, reviewer transparency can curb misbehavior. We’re all well aware that it’s easy to be nasty when anonymity reduces the associated risks. The vileness of many YouTube comments is an obvious example. de Ruiter argues that anonymous peer review not only has the unintended consequence of removing good science from the literature, but it also removes good scientists. I can attest to this, too. One of my former graduate students, having just gone through the peer review process, questioned his future in academia. He expressed that he didn’t want the fate of his career to hinge on the whims of three random people who are loaded with biases and can behave badly without consequence.

2) Get credit. Currently, we don't get credit for reviewing. If it's not related to your research, it's not worth your time to write a review, let alone write a high-quality review. "Opportunity costs!" screams the economist. But if we make reviews archivable, then we can receive credit, and we should be more likely to review. Some retention, tenure, and promotion committees would likely count these archived reviews as forms of scholarship and productivity. Altmetrics—quantitative measures of a researcher’s impact, other than journal impact factor—are becoming more and more popular, and unless journal impact factors are completely revamped, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, we’ll all be hearing a lot more about altmetrics in the future. Digital-born journals are in a good position to overhaul the peer review process to make it transparent and archivable. F1000Research and PeerJ, for example, have laudable open peer review models.

The flip side of this “getting credit” benefit is that we’ll be able to see who’s free-riding. In a correspondence piece in Nature, Dan Graur argued that those scientists who publish the most are least likely to serve as reviewers. “The biggest consumers of peer review seem to contribute the least to the process,” he wrote. This inverse correlation was not found, however, in a proper analysis of four ecology journals over an 8-year period, but the ratio of researchers’ reviews to submissions could be journal or discipline specific. Bottom line: free-riding could be a problem, and reviewer onymity could help to reduce it.

A journal’s prestige comes primarily from the quality of papers it publishes. And the quality of papers rests largely on the shoulders of the editors and peer reviewers. It follows, then, that the prestige of a journal is owed to its editors and reviewers. Editors get acknowledged. Their names are easily found in the colophon of a print journal and on the journal’s website, but not so for the reviewers’ names. Some journals publish an annual acknowledgment of manuscript reviewers, but because it’s divorced from any content—e.g., you don’t know who reviewed what and how often—it’s largely worthless and probably ignored. Given that the dissemination (and progress?) of science depends on free labor provided by reviewers, they should get credit for doing it. Admittedly, this would introduce complexities, such as including the recommendations of the reviewers. I’d appreciate if I were acknowledged as a reviewer in each paper I review, but only if my recommendation accompanied my name: “Aaron Goetz recommended rejection.” A reviewer’s name, without her accompanying recommendation, in the acknowledgements of a published paper would look like an endorsement, and I know I’m not the only one to recommend rejection to a paper that was subsequently published. Even better, it would not be difficult to link associated reviews to the paper.

3) Accountability. You’ve surely opened up the pages of your discipline’s flagship journal, saw a laughable article, and wondered who let this nonsense get published. Picking the low-hanging fruit, who reviewed Bem’s precognition paper? Some reviewers of that paper, not Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, should be held accountable for wasting researcher resources. Try not to calculate how much time and effort was spent on these projects that set the record straight.

Another benefit that comes from shining light on reviewers would be the ability to recognize unsuitable reviewers and conflicts of interest. I bet a nontrivial number of people have reviewed their former students’ or former advisor’s work. I also have a hunch that a few topics within psychology owe their existence to a small network of researchers who are continually selected as the reviewers for these papers. As a hypothetical example, wouldn’t it be important to know that the majority of work on terror management theory was reviewed by Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and their students? Although I don’t think that G, S, P, and their students conducted the majority of reviews of the hundreds of terror management papers, I am highly skeptical of TMT for theoretical reasons. But I digress.

Some colleagues have confessed that, when reviewing a manuscript that has the potential to steal their thunder or undermine their work, they were more critical, were more likely to recommend rejection, and took significantly longer to return their review. This is toxic and is “damaging science” in de Ruiter’s words.

And for those senior researchers who delegate reviews to graduate students, onymity could alleviate the associated bad practices. Senior researchers will either be forced to write their own reviews or engage in more pedagogy so that their students’ reviews meet basic standards of quality.

4) Clarification. Authors would be able to ask reviewers to clarify their comments and suggestions, even if official correspondence between the two is severed due to the manuscript’s rejection. I’ve certainly received comments that I didn’t know quite what to do with. I once got “The authors should consider whether these perceptual shifts are commercial.” Huh? Commercial? Of course, a potential danger is that authors and reviewers could open a back-channel dialog that excludes the editor. I imagine that some editors will read potential danger, while some will read potential benefit. If you’re the former, an explicit “Authors and reviewers should refrain from communicating with one another about the manuscript throughout the review process” would probably do the trick.

5) Increased quality. This is the primary benefit of review transparency. I know that I’m not the only reviewer who has, at some point, written a hasty or careless review. Currently, there are no costs to reviewers who provide careless or poor-quality reviews, but there are serious costs associated with careless reviews, the primary being impeding scientific progress and wasting researcher resources. If we tie reputational consequences to reviews, then review quality increases. This practice might also increase review time, but that’s a cost we should be willing to incur to increase quality and accountability, expose biases, give credit where it’s due, and encourage goodwill.

There’s actually some empirical evidence suggesting that signed reviews are of higher quality than unsigned reviews. Reviewers for the British Journal of Psychiatry were randomly assigned to signed and unsigned groups and provided real reviews for manuscripts, per business as usual. The researchers then measured the quality of reviews and compared them. By most measures, review quality was modestly but statistically better among the signed reviews. These data, however, aren’t as relevant to my argument, because reviewer identity was only revealed to authors of the manuscripts rather than the entire scientific community. Any differences noted between the signed and unsigned groups are likely conservative estimates of what would happen if reviewers’ names and recommendations were publically attached to papers where reputational costs and benefits could be incurred. Another study also examining the effect of reviewer anonymity on review quality did not find any differences between the signed and unsigned groups, but this study suffers from the same limitation as the first: reviewer identity was only revealed to the authors of the manuscripts and did not appear in the subsequent publishing of accepted manuscripts.

Signed reviews could become what evolutionary scientists call honest signals. Honest signals—sometimes referred to as hard-to-fake signals, costly signals, or Zahavian signals—refer to traits or behaviors that are metabolically and energetically costly or dangerous to produce, maintain, or express. We all know the peacock’s tail as the standard example. A peacock’s tail honestly signals low parasite load. Only healthy, high quality males can afford to produce large, bright tail feathers. And many of us learned that the stotting of many antelope species is best understood as an honest signal of quality.

Much in same way that large, bright tail feathers honestly signal health, signed reviews can honestly signal review quality and integrity. Only a reviewer who writes a high quality review and is confident that the review is high quality can afford to sign her name at the bottom of her review. And only a reviewer who is confident that her critical review is fair and warranted can afford sign her name.

It’s easy to write a subpar review; it probably happens every day. It’s not easy, however, to write a subpar review if your name is attached to it. Our desire to maintain our reputation is strong. To illustrate this, I challenge you to tweet or update your Facebook status to this: “CBS is hands down the best network. I could watch it all day.”


I recently reread an onymous review I received from a colleague I deeply respect. His review did not pull any punches, and parts of it would probably be considered abrasive by those who haven’t developed a thick skin. When I received it, I recognized that to give my paper such a review—to dig up those obscure references, to run those analyses, to identify all of the strengths and weaknesses, and to entertain those alternative explanations—he had to get intimate with it. He had to let it marinade in his thoughts before he savored each paragraph, citation, and analysis. Although he ultimately devoured it, it was deeply rewarding to have someone else care that much about my work. And it fills me with gratitude to know who it was that give up their weekend, their time on their own work, or their time with their friends and family. Anything that increases rigor, exposes biases, aids scientific progress, and promotes gratitude and goodwill should at least be considered. And beyond mere consideration, journals should think seriously about examining the differences between signed and unsigned reviews and between public and private reviews. Editors have all they need to examine the differences between signed and unsigned reviews, and editors open to testing an open reviewer system that links reviews to published papers can contact me and others at the Open Science Collaboration.


1 Yes, you’re recognizing onymous as the back-formation of anonymous. Onymous is synonymous with named, identified, or signed. 2 JP de Ruiter, whom I mention few times throughout, wrote a piece that argued the same basic point that I’m trying to here: anonymous peer review is toxic and it should be fixed. Andrew Sabisky alerted me to de Ruiter’s post, and it inspired me to finish writing this piece. Many thanks to both. I encourage you to read de Ruiter’s post. Also, Kristy MacLeod wrote a great post about her decision to sign a review, and her decision to sign seems to be rooted in honest signaling. I recommend you read it, too. 3 Geoffrey Miller wrote and signed the review I referenced in the last paragraph. 4 Special thanks go to Jessica Ayers, Kayla Causey, JP de Ruiter, Jon Grahe, and Gorge Romero who gave comments on an earlier draft of this post. All errors are my own, of course.

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