Thursday, August 7, 2014

An Open Letter to Reviewer #2

Dear Reviewer #2,

I want to thank you. Not only did you significantly improve my last research paper with your careful comments and questions, you actually encouraged me to continue working on it.

I also want to ask for your thoughts on this thing called "anonymous peer review." Did you ever feel like we were sitting on opposite sides of a very small island, forbidden from meeting in the middle and forced to communicate by floating bottle? I sure did!

This isn't about time--you and Reviewer #1 were both admirably prompt, returning your comments within a month each time I submitted or resubmitted. (The year and half it took to get the beast revised and published was entirely due to the fact that I gave birth nine days after the first reviews came in, officially starting my new job as principal investigator of a longitudinal study of human development [n=1], so I didn't have a whole lot of spare time.)

The paper went through two rounds of review; the first time Reviewer #1 raised "minor points of concern" while you had "more substantial criticisms," as the editor put it. After I revised and resubmitted, Reviewer #1 gave it the thumbs-up, but you had quite a few more questions and comments.

However, you also wrote, "The authors have done a nice job of addressing many of my concerns and have responded to my points in a conscientious and well-reasoned manner . . . Overall, I am pleased with the revised document and appreciate the authors’ hard work in revising the manuscript."*

Those kind words were copied and pasted to the top of my revision document, and I re-read them every time I came back to work.

One of your criticisms had me and my co-authors scratching our heads for a couple of weeks. Finally I asked the journal editor to pass a message to you, asking for a reference or two to clarify your point. The bottle floated to your shore, then back to mine, and I was happy to uncork it and find the needed clarification.

Going through the editor didn't slow things down much, but it still felt silly to me. Why all the fuss about preserving anonymity?

I know that there are valid arguments in favor of anonymity, but I don't think they apply here. Yes, junior reviewers commenting critically on the work of more established scientists can be burned by a loss of anonymity. But I can only imagine how often it happens the other way around--that reviews are biased by reviewers' knowledge of the authors.

Because usually the authors' names are right there on the manuscript.** And when reviewers know names, they can't help guessing gender and ethnicity and probably other attributes, and we all know humans have biases, conscious and unconscious.

Opening up peer review won't make us all angels, but at least it would make us take responsibility for our words. As Richard Smith wrote in an editorial about implementing open peer review at the British Medical Journal: "A court with an unidentified judge makes us think immediately of totalitarian states and the world of Franz Kafka."

The Journal of Experimental Biology, through which you and I corresponded, still has publishing ethics like the majority of journals, which promise that reviewers "will remain anonymous and their comments will not be published."

Were you glad of that? For my part, I think it would be great if your comments and my responses were a matter of public record, as in publishing experiments like PeerJ. You made the work substantially better; shouldn't you be credited?

Not only would publishing research as an exchange between authors and reviewers benefit both, it would also be a service to the public. It would more clearly showcase science as an iterative process, a collaborative, continuous pursuit of greater understanding.

So: what do you think of open peer review? Have you ever participated in it? (I haven't, much as I'd like to.) Would you appreciate acknowledgement of the time and effort you put into my work?

I remain grateful for your help, whether or not I ever find out who you are,


* I realize that publishing your words here may be a breach of ethics, but I've decided to risk it because the quote isn't identifying or incriminating. If you contact me through any channel and ask me to remove it, I will.

** I've only once published in a journal (Fishery Bulletin) that sends manuscripts to reviewers without author names and, frankly, it wouldn't have been too hard for reviewers to guess. I don't work in a huge field. The paper's introduction made it clear whose work we were building on, the methods gave away the expeditions we went on, and a few minutes of clever googling would probably have provided any determined reviewer with our names.***

*** In some cases, a determined author could probably work this trick in reverse. The longer and more detailed the review, the more information is available: what papers does the reviewer suggest that you cite? Could it be one of the reviewers that you recommended to the editor when you submitted? But I contend that reviewers always have a greater chance of anonymity than authors, because authors pour more of their lives into the paper.


  1. Very thought-provoking, thanks! I agree there are good arguments for open peer review, but I have also been grateful for anonymity as a reviewer -- not so much due to a fear of making enemies, but because it makes me feel freer to be more candid, and thereby (hopefully) improve the paper more. There are some sorts of suggestions that I would feel comfortable making (with my name attached) to a student of mine, but not to a senior colleague or even a peer/friend -- not because of fear of retaliation or anything, just because it would feel socially inappropriate -- and yet which _ought_ to be made by someone.

    Put differently: the relationship between reviewer and author is asymmetrical in a particular way: the reviewer is evaluating the author's work and making suggestions to help improve it. But when (as ofter happens in small fields) the reviewer and author know each other (or even know _of_ each other) outside the context of the paper, they already have a defined relationship -- and taking on the necessary reviewer/author roles for the duration of a particular interaction can be difficult, _psychologically_, even if everyone approaches it in good faith. Anonymity, like hiding your face behind a mask when you go up on stage, makes it easier to take on an unfamiliar role.

    1. That is a very interesting perspective! I do kind of like the idea of wearing masks to play the reviewer/author roles, and it makes me think that peer review could be benefited by going in either direction--from single-blind to open, or from single-blind to double-blind. Even though, as I noted, it might be easy for a reviewer to guess the author, I bet there's a psychological benefit to neither party being named.


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