Do we sign our peer reviews? Mostly, no.

Update, 24 November 2014: There’s been a renewed interest in this post, so now is as good a time as any to note that, in addition to this survey, I also posted written responses from folks who choose to sign their reviews and those who remain anonymous. I recommend reading them all!
Last week, inspired by discussions with my co-bloggers and a post by Terry McGlynn, I asked our readers to tell me whether they do peer review anonymously, and why. A total of 87 folks responded to a brief online survey, and here’s what they said: most of us review anonymously, and a lot of us do it to protect ourselves in interactions with senior colleagues.
First, the headline result: how many Molecular Ecologist readers review anonymously? Of the 87 survey participants, 82% (71) said that generally they do no sign their peer reviews.
But I also asked participants how many reviews they’d done in the last year, and how many of those were anonymous—and this revealed that those general statements aren’t ironclad.
The 16 participants who said they generally sign their reviews actually signed a median of 79% of the reviews they performed in the last year. The 71 who generally don’t sign their reviews were most likely to have stuck to anonymity the whole time—but over 10% of them (8) said they’d signed more than a quarter of their reviews.
Participants’ career stages had a marginally significant effect on the proportion of reviews they signed (ANOVA p = 0.052), and the differences among career stages don’t line up cleanly with seniority.
Grad students, the least senior group, reported a wide range of practices—but this probably reflects the fact that they performed fewer reviews. (There is, not surprisingly, a strongly significant effect of seniority on the number of reviews participants conducted in the last year; ANOVA p = 0.007. Grad student participants reviewed a median of 3 papers, compared to 7 for postdocs, 9 for tenure-track faculty, and 12 for tenured faculty.) Postdocs and non-tenure-track faculty mostly review anonymously, consistent with concerns about their interactions with colleagues who still have a lot of control over career advancement. Tenure-track faculty were most likely to sign their reviews; but tenured faculty were among the participants least likely to sign.
What reasons did participants give for their decisions to sign or not sign reviews?

Of those who
Percent saying Do sign Don’t sign
It’s what I always do 13% 48%
It promotes better peer review 75% 45%
Concerned for reputation/ interaction with colleagues 25% 54%
Journal policies 13% 21%

Participants who said they generally review anonymously were more likely to cite habit, and to say that they were concerned for their reputation or their interactions with colleagues. Folks who said they generally sign their reviews were more likely to say that they thought this practice promotes better peer review.
Finally, it’s also worth noting that participants with different reviewing practices did not differ in the amount of reviewing they did in the past year.
That’s anonymity in peer review by the numbers—at least for folks who read The Molecular Ecologist. Some of the recent discussion of peer review has pointed up the differences among even relatively similar scientific fields, and our small sample here is probably mostly folks who would call themselves evolutionary ecologists or population geneticists. I also asked participants whether they’d be interested in discussing their practices at greater length, and a number of folks agreed to answer some questions by e-mail—I’ll be posting those responses next week!

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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