Why we sign our peer reviews

A Lovely Signature, 1796
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 lots of folks did. These are the responses from those who said they usually sign their reviews—you can find responses from folks who usually review anonymously here. I’ve done only minimal editing for clarity. Thanks to everyone who shared thoughts!
Bryan Carstens, Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University, in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology.
As a rule, I prefer signed reviews for two reasons. One, they are generally more thorough and thus more useful to the AE and the authors of the manuscript. In my role as the former, I have seen too many cases where people write a short anonymous review that heavily criticizes an aspect of the submitted paper in a less-than-judicious manner. Second, signed reviews are generally more impactful on the authors. I can think of at least two examples of papers that I have written that changed substantially due to a signed review from someone that I deeply respected, and therefore could not ignore the constructive criticism offered in the review.
In most cases I sign, but when I have not signed it was usually due to extenuating circumstances such as the case where I was reviewing a paper written by someone who was in the process of serving as an AE on one of my graduate student’s papers.
Ralph Haygood, Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute.
Anonymity facilitates irresponsibility. I’ve seen far too many incredibly, insultingly sloppy reviews of my own and collaborators’ manuscripts and grant proposals. I judge it unlikely those reviews would have been tendered if the reviewers had had to sign their names. So in an effort to move the culture forward, I sign my reviews and urge others to do likewise.
I always sign. I can’t imagine any reason not to sign that wouldn’t be a reason not to review in the first place. For example, one academic I know – a prominent professor at a prominent university – holds absurd, petty grudges against people who have slighted him (or who he imagines have slighted him). (He sometimes expresses his grudges in grossly unethical ways, too, e.g., by denying access to resources in the stewardship of which he’s mistakenly been entrusted with a role.) Were I asked to review a manuscript by him, I’d refuse and tell the editor something about why.
I don’t think anonymity has ever made any difference to how I’ve reviewed. I think it makes a difference to how some other people review.
I should mention I’ve been a grad student and a postdoc but not a professor. Professors, especially untenured ones, are under outrageous pressure to be “productive”, a category that mostly doesn’t include reviewing. For such people, the temptation to write sloppy reviews is presumably intense. In my ideal world, reviews would be not only orthonymous but also public, and academics would get credit for them in hiring and promotion decisions. I actually don’t think this idea is far-fetched. As conventional journals are displaced by online publication (e.g., arXiv, Haldane’s Sieve, etc.), I expect more and more reviewing will happen in public.
Ignasi Bartomeus, postdoc, on Twitter as @ibartomeus.
I do think reviewers should be disclosed on publication in order to get credit for their job, but also to take responsibility of it. In general, I also think signing makes the process more transparent and helps engage in a constructive conversation.
One of my advisors (who do not sign reviews) told me that if you can’t sign them all, is better to do not sign any. I think this is true. I am not saying there can’t be exceptions, but those should be rare (i.e. exceptions).
One thing I feel more confortable doing when I sign the review is talking about my research (specially if it is already cited or miss-cited) and it makes it easier to disclose my limitations (for example, I am not english speaker, so I can point that out when suggesting rephrasing an unclear sentence). However, I think signing shouldn’t affect much what you have say.
I partially blogged about this before.
Zen Faulkes, Associate Professor at The University of Texas-Pan American.
I used to be very strongly in favour of signed reviews.
My position has moderated over time, partly because people have pushed me on this. For example, this post generated this pushback.
I can see more value in anonymous reviews. Neuroskeptic has also made an excellent case for the tradition of anonymity in science.
That said, I still support pushes for more transparency in the peer review process in general. Right now, I am more interested in transparency in the content of the reviews; the identity of reviewers is probably less important right now.
Right now, I sign every one [of my reviews].
I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where I thought my review would be any different if I were writing anonymously.
Now, I did have a case where I wrote a blog post that was a little critical of a published paper. Later, the author emailed me, saying he wished I contacted him first so we could “avoid misunderstandings,” was I think how this person put it. I don’t feel I suffered any actual consequences from this, but I was sorry that I upset a colleague. But I still feel that what I wrote was fair comment.

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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