Why we don't sign our peer reviews

The Mask
Last week I posted the results from a brief survey of our readers, asking whether they usually sign their peer reviews. In that small sample of evolutionary ecologists, the overwhelming majority said they review anonymously, though many participants seem to take things on a case-by-case basis. Participants who review anonymously were more likely to cite habit, and to say that they were concerned about the consequences that non-anonymous reviews might have for their relationships with colleagues.
I also asked participants to send in some more in-depth thoughts on the question of anonymous review, and a number of folks did. These are the responses from those who said they usually review anonymously—you can find responses from folks who usually sign their reviews here. I’ve done only minimal editing for clarity. Thanks to everyone who shared thoughts!
Will Pearse, postdoc at the University of Minnesota, contributor at Phylo-Eco-Geo-Evo Journal Club:
I wrote an article with James Rosindell suggesting a new open peer review system where every aspect of peer review is completely open, yet paradoxically I rarely sign reviews. My concern is appearing sycophantic when I enjoy a paper, I’m actually not worried about more negative reviews because I’m always polite and constructive. I would only sign my review if I were recommending someone cite one of my papers, something I’m not often comfortable doing anyway. I’ve actually done an entirely open review [for Faculty of 1000] and I found the whole experience rather jarring; I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t already like the software in question, and I think that could be unethical. Scott’s a nice guy and a good scientist; I’m not certain I would have been viewed very favourably being one of the first people to criticise the work of another in the open, despite the fact I think such a system has a number of benefits.
Pleuni Pennings, postdoc at Stanford University, who wrote a blog post on the question last year:

Yesterday I was talking about the issue of signing with two colleagues. And they gave me good reasons why signing reviews is not necessary and sometimes awkward.
1. It is not necessary because the editor will know your name. So even if you don’t sign, there is a senior colleague who sees what you write, and you are not anonymous.
2. It can be awkward if you write a very positive review and sign your name, because it may be seen as if you are just doing the authors a favor in the hope that they will return the favor at another stage.

Tony Gamble, postdoc at the University of Minnesota, on Twitter as @tony_gamble1.
The default should be that reviewers remain anonymous but they can choose to sign reviews if they want to.
I almost always review anonymously. There was a short period where I signed reviews after getting a paper back with a signed review. I thought that was interesting and figured I would try it out myself. I only did this two or three times though and quickly went back to anonymous reviewing. I now look back on signing reviews as just another one of those crazy things people experiment with in grad school (like microsatellites and home brew).
I write every review assuming that my identity could be revealed to the authors through a mistake made by an editor or a software glitch with the publisher. Also, I write a review that I would want to receive – the ‘golden rule’ of peer review, that is, comments should be constructive and actionable. I am happy to stand behind each and every review I write. With that in mind anonymous reviewing lets the review stand by itself and doesn’t let personalities get in the way. I review manuscripts written by close friends and colleagues as well as by people that don’t like me at all. I believe that I write fair and honest reviews for every manuscript and my hope is that authors can take those reviews and trust them. The authors don’t need to worry whether I went easy on them or was unfairly harsh because they don’t know it was me. There is no one paper that I can point to as proving this point better than another. I have had to write several reviews rejecting manuscripts written by friends and colleagues that would have been far more challenging if I were not anonymous. Thinking about this as an author, there have not been any instances where I would have benefitted from knowing who a reviewer was.
Anonymous, National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow.
I usually am anonymous but I have occasionally signed my reviews. I chose to be anonymous because I am relatively junior, although I am not sure at what point I would consider myself sufficiently senior to change my approach. I expect that my comments might be not taken as seriously if my position (and gender) were known. I also expect that my own comments will be slightly less critical if I reveal my name. Science, and peer review, are political processes and to claim otherwise (i.e., that authors and reviewers will act exactly the same without the protection of reviewer anonymity) seems out of step with the reality.
I do my best to be constructive and objective in every review, but I know that critiques of ones work can be perceived as intensely personal and I have no doubt that some authors have a negative reaction to my comments. I think being anonymous minimizes the opportunity for resentment and retaliation, or the opportunity for the authors to try to discredit my comments based on my identity. I think in general, anonymity increases the quality of the peer review process, though I admit that the current system is still biased by the names/profile of the authors. I review for a journal where both reviewer and author identity is blinded (Behavioral Ecology) and it is one of my favorite places to review for that reason.
That being said, for other journals I always sign my reviews if I reference my own work in my review. It is often self-evident in that case anyway. I also sign my review if I suspect that the authors suggested me as a reviewer (e.g., I have been sent a paper to review after corresponding over email with the author, or meeting them at a conference). In that case, the comments and the tone are probably be familiar to the authors anyway. I don’t think that whether I give a positive or negative review is a factor in whether I sign, because in every case I try to focus on improving the paper – so all of my reviews probably are a mix of positive and negative comments.
Anonymous, postdoc at the University of British Columbia.
[Reviews] should be anonymous.
First, it avoids making enemies. I often hear authors saying that reviewers are unfair/too harsh/unrealistic. Yet, I think it has to do more with the authors being so involved in the manuscript that they do not see the criticism objectively. As such, if you were to sign your review, authors would then have a (possibly unjustified) opinion of you.
Second, it avoids the authors not taking the reviews seriously because they come from a “junior” scientist (i.e. Msc/PhD/postdoc). Yet, junior scientists are often the ones giving the most detailed and careful reviews (I say this because I act as an editor myself and therefore I interact with dozens of reviewers / year).
Then, the editor should have the power and experience to temper the conclusion of a bad review. As such, it is probably a bad idea to write a bad/unfair review, because whether it is signed or not, the editor knows who you are and therefore, you are never completely anonymous.
I did [sign my name] only once on a particularly positive review. I would not do so again based on the reasons listed above.
[I’ve reviewed anonymously when] Giving a reject decision on a manuscript where a colleague of mine was the senior author. Arguably, you shouldn’t review papers from people you know personally, but as research fields are sometimes very specific, it may become difficult to find reviewers.

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.
This entry was posted in career, community, peer review, science publishing. Bookmark the permalink.