Buffet lunch.... all for me!

Anonymous refereeing for journals

Most academic journals retain the anonymity of referees – academics and researchers invited to appraise the quality of manuscripts submitted for publication. Some journals keep authors names known to the referees but the authors don’t know who their referees are; this is called single-blind review. Others operate a system where the identity of both referees and authors are kept from each other and only the editor knows their identities; this is called double-blind review.

For my own journal – the Archaeological Journal – we have long practised multiple single-blind review (multiple referees are used to make decisions, but they are made aware of the identity of the authors), and recently, the standard practice (unless it proves impossible or very difficult), we have moved over to multiple double-blind review (multiple referees are still used, but they no longer are told (thought they might well guess) the identities of the author(s). I won’t get into the differences and the advantages/disadvantages of these here. The point for this post is that referees are anonymous for most publishing venues for archaeologists in journals, and indeed for edited books and monographs.

Why keep referees anonymous?

Some don’t like the anonymity, thinking referees ‘hide behind it’ and make comments they wouldn’t otherwise make. I would agree, although editors certainly shouldn’t let referees make personal or prejudiced comments about authors’ works. Unfounded allegations of professional or personal impropriety have no place in the review process, whether referees are given the authors’ names or not.

However, anonymity is often equated with ‘secrecy’, the sense that there are hidden forces at work to prevent the natural course of the universe: publication and the joy it brings.

I would dispute this equation with secrecy. Anonymity is there for a reason; to protect those who give opinions and judgements from retaliation in an academic or personal context (like having grant applications blocked, their own publications refused, students refused opportunities and so on) as well as personal abuse, libel and slander. Remember, anyone can be a target of such behaviours, from students to senior professors and retired researchers and academics too.

Let’s also remember, referees might be relatively junior colleagues with expertise in a specific field and, without anonymity, they might be fearful of making their opinions known about peers’ and senior colleagues’ work for fear of reprisals. Anonymising referees also prevents referees using review as a context to extend patronage to authors and set up networks of obligation with authors.

I see it as the same as anonymous voting. We may choose to make our political views known, but we don’t have our voting cards tweeted for all to see or have to shout out the name of the person we’ve voted for in public. It allows individuals to make an appraisal without it being about their identity, but about their judgement.

Certainly, referees might waive their rights to anonymity, being happy to let their name go forward in order to facilitate constructive dialogue with the authors, or on principle, because they do not believe in hiding behind the anonymity afforded by this process. That is fine.

However, for my journal at least, I find most authors want to stay anonymous and I preserve anonymity throughout unless explicitly instructed otherwise.

Cover JournalDo I stay anonymous?

I cannot pretend to have fundamentalist views either way; I honestly haven’t thought about it too much before. Anonymity is the culture in which we inhabit, for better or worse and it is easy to use it as default. I have been used to receiving anonymous reports on my own work and while it is frustrating at times, it always seems appropriate. What do I do? My answer is: sometimes anonymous, sometimes not. When serving as a referee for grant proposals: there seems no choice but to be anonymous.

As a manuscript referee – books and journals – I have sometimes waived my right to anonymity and for a mixture of reasons. Sometimes, I haven’t thought about it too carefully. Other times, I’ve done it to help the author(s) contextualise my comments and to seek guidance from me should they wish to follow up for this or future articles on some of the issues I raise. If I was honest, I sometimes have waived anonymity out of pride or enthusiasm: to show my interest and support for the work. Reviewing is an important role and one I am proud of: contributing to maintaining standards of work and facilitating the publication of exciting new work. Most people referee as an integral part of their SALARIED JOBS as academics, as it helps to keep them aware of the latest research and hone critical academic skills.

On other occasions, I have stayed anonymous. Why? Why shouldn’t I have my name honestly appended to the words I write? Mainly when I don’t want my review to associated with my institution, colleagues or students, particularly when reviews are critical of other author’s works. Often I think I have retained anonymity when I feel my identity is irrelevant and the issues are general ones, or I feel my comments might be misinterpreted as personal. The review process is not intended to be personal, but about particular pieces of work and their merits, and that is the key thing above and beyond anonymity or otherwise. It allows me to be more honest to write without it being seen to be ME. At one level, it shouldn’t matter to the author who wrote the piece; I was invited to do so and it is for the grant awarding body or the editor to judge whether they feel my appraisal is valid, in relation to their own judgement and those of other referees.

In future, I will hide

However, I have recently decided I always, in future, ‘hide behind anonymity’ and here’s why.

Back Story

I recent was invited to write, and decided to write, a Comment to be published alongside, and in response to, a Discussion Article in an international peer-review journal. It wasn’t subject to peer-review but it was revised and approved of by the journal’s entire editorial board. I even saw the proofs of the piece and I had toned down some of my more critical comments at proof stage.

However, the authors of the article were upset by my critical comments and did not want to participate in having it published together with their article and they did not want to exercise their right to reply in defence of their arguments.  They requested to be published without my comments. The editors refused since the authors had agreed to have their piece published as a Discussion Article and they felt authors shouldn’t dictate whom editors decided to invite to comment. The editors had no option but to withdraw the Discussion Article and all 3 Comments, one of which was mine. For this venue at least, the authors’ work, the other two reviewers’ work, and my work, were all wasted.

I was sad about this: I hadn’t written my comment to censor their ideas, but to engage in some lively academic banter that might interest students and scholars alike and foster further debate on a big academic multidisciplinary theme. This was an ‘open review’ with a right for the authors to reply.

Not wishing to stifle debate, I offered to withdraw my Comment unilaterally to facilitate publication, but the editors stated that they wanted all or nothing and authors shouldn’t dictate which reviews appear with their work.

I then wrote to the authors, explaining how sorry I was, and while I stood by my views I had no further personal dislike for their work. This resulted in no reply.

Life moves on, and I regret bothering to comment in an open venue in the spirit of dialogue. In this instance, adding my name in an honest way didn’t work out for anyone concerned!

My review comes back to bite me

That experience in itself warns me off open review but also it warned me against in future waiving my anonymity when refereeing journal manuscripts too. Here’s why. What struck me about anonymous reviewing was a point told to me by the editors of the journal. The editors informed me that the authors had not only been upset by my comments on their article, but claimed I had been critical on social media of their piece (not actually true) and of their previous work, presumably citing this as evidence that I have a track record of writing critical comments on their work. I thought long and hard about this latter comment and realised that what the authors must be referring to is a de-anonymised set of comments I provided to another editor on an article by one of the authors  submitted to a completely different journal on a completely different topic!

Incidentally, my critical comments in that other article had been written alongside a recommendation that the article was accepted for publication, and it was!

Still, despite achieving publication, my critical views on that previous piece of work were somehow being mobilised by the authors as evidence to suggest some form of personal dislike for the authors and their work on a completely different topic and different context. This has convinced me: never again will I let my name go forward to authors, for fear of this kind of misunderstanding happening again.

My advice?

  1. Don’t participate in open review; which at the very least breeds as much animosity as anonymous refereeing.
  2. Stay anonymous if you referee to avoid threats of litigation and retaliation, or in this case, the use of those judgements to assert perceived/imagined patterns of behaviour in other contexts.

Postscript

Professor Norman Hammond has been in touch to highlight to me his piece in American Antiquity from 1984 which espouses a very different view, making the points that (a) anonymity should be available on request on specific grounds, not prescribed and (b) that it stifles our research culture and discourse. Focusing upon both manuscript reviews and grant proposal reviews, he felt openness and named appraisals are more honest and more constructive and prevent personal animosities from affecting reviews and allowing them to scupper projects on personal grounds. His anecdote at the beginning of his paper raises the point that, if anonymity is created, those receiving reviews will attribute individuals they know as the potential authors of the piece; fostering paranoia and bad-feeling.

My immediate response to this article, for which is rightly says, things haven’t changed much in 30 years. I think Norman makes many valid points and I would be happy with a system where anonymity was not a default system. Also, I would also be keen to stress that applicants/authors should have the right to question the evaluations made of their work and a formal complaints procedure if they feel they have been treated unfairly.

However, to me it seems to require a very secure and privileged position to evaluate a specific grant or article – a very different job to writing a book review or research paper – and do so authored. I think only certain individuals in tenured positions will feel able to do this without a concern for reprisals even more vicious than those conducted within the anonymous system. Furthermore, if you are working freelance or in the commercial or governmental sectors, you are an early career or retired academic, or indeed if you belong to a minority group or have a sexual or gendered identity that might leave you open to personal or professional abuse and retaliation in some regard, I think you might think twice about open review. Quite simply: I think if open review is insisted upon, many won’t do it. Personally, I don’t think I would participate in evaluating grant proposals or journal manuscripts if I had no choice but to do so openly. Those left doing the open reviews would be a very malcontent and fearless (or fearful?) group of very angry people. In that system, I wish them all the luck in the world!

Reference

Hammond, N. 1984. On Anonymity, Amercian Antiquity 49(1): 161-63.

Advertisements