Sitting in judgment – Calling the shots – Peer review – A personal view

I have just finished refereeing four papers from four different journals with different approaches to the peer review system. As a result I now feel moved to share my thoughts about the way journals ask us to review papers. In earlier posts I have written about my experiences as an editor and also about why and how many papers we should referee as good citizens of the scientific community. The four journals for which I have just acted as a reviewer are Ideas in Ecology & Evolution, Physiological Entomology, and Journal of Insect Behavior and Animal Behaviour. Ideas in Ecology & Evolution operates a completely open review process and allows authors, should they wish, to solicit their own reviews in exchange for a reduced processing charge. As a reviewer you can, as well as submitting your review, submit a response article free of charge. As someone who is usually unable to publish in open access journals as my usual funding sources rarely, if ever, provide funding for page and processing charges, I took the opportunity to do so and am now waiting to see if my offering will get published 😉 Animal Behaviour on the other hand operates a double-blind system where the referee is supposedly as blind as the author(s).

Blind author and referee

This is achieved by removing the names and addresses of the authors. As however, the references and acknowledgements are usually left untouched, it is, in my field, comparatively easy to work out who wrote the paper with some confidence.  The other two journals give you the option of revealing your identity should you so wish.

I have for my sins reviewed a lot of papers over the years; sadly as a data nerd, I have kept a record not only of how many papers I review a year but for which journals (I really should get a life).

Papers refereed

In all those years last week was the first time that I have ever unambiguously revealed my identity. I say unambiguously, because, during the 1990s when Oikos used to give you the opportunity to sign your review, I did use to scrawl my totally illegible signature at the bottom of the page, confident that no-one could actually read it! So why do I opt for anonymity when reviewing papers?

I am confident that I would write exactly the same review if I did it openly and in fact sometimes I am sure that the authors can guess that I was the reviewer. I choose to be anonymous because I feel that a generally open review system would tend to make some, if not most reviewers, pull their punches. How many young post-docs would dare to reject a paper by an established academic knowing that they could be on their next interview panel or reviewing their next grant application or be the editor of the journal they submit their next paper to?  We are all supposed to be dispassionate scientists able to take constructive criticism, but even the most laid-back of us will probably remember the name of the young whippersnapper who dared reject our paper.  I am pretty sure that when I was at the beginning of my career I would never have dared criticize, let alone reject, a Southwood or Lawton paper in an open review system.   As an Editor who occasionally submits papers to my own journal I have to take this ‘fear’ factor into account and have rejected my own papers when for other authors I would have allowed a resubmission.  In my experience as an Editor, I rarely see reviewers using the confidential comments to the editor section to say something very different from the review they have provided for the authors to see. So I think that the traditional system works pretty well.

I also think that by revealing our identities to authors we could end up with a you scratch my back I will scratch yours situation in that if A gives B a favourable review then B will in turn give A one back and the whole system will be subverted.

So in conclusion until someone proves otherwise I will continue to remain anonymous except in exceptional circumstances.

 

Post script

For a less personal and more scientific viewpoint see this article

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/information-culture/2014/04/19/introduction-to-traditional-peer-review/

and for an alternative viewpoint see this from Dynamic Ecology

https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/tag/peer-review/

Post-post script

In case you are wondering why I was so lazy in 1991, I was desperately applying for jobs in the university sector.

 

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