Saturday, October 29, 2016

Anonymity ain't what it used to be

(NOTE: I just found that this post was sitting around, not submitted. So here it is)

Sometimes scholarly anonymity is not upheld by journals, even if they promise this. A while ago I reviewed a manuscript for Journal A (I am being anonymous here to protect the guilty). The paper in question had a lot of problems and I did not recommend publication. Recently I saw that the paper (presumably a heavily revised version) had been published in Journal B. Then a colleague emailed me with some remarks on the paper, and made an offhand remark that I must have seen the paper and provided help or comments to the authors. But I don't know the authors and had never communicated with them! I checked the paper, and I was indeed thanked in the acknowledgements for my comments. I went back to my original review and confirmed that I had indeed submitted it anonymously (sometimes I sign my reviews, and sometimes not; when I DO sign a review, I make it very clear that I do not want to remain anonymous).

I contacted the editors of Journal A, who did not know what had happened. I contacted the lead author, who sent along a copy of my review. It was the review I had submitted to the journal, but an extra line had been added at the top: "Reviewer: Michael Smith." This was supposed to be a single-blind review system (that is, the names of the authors are known to the reviewers, but the names of the reviewers are not supposed to be revealed to the authors). Hmmmmmmmm. I was pretty angry at the journal, and slightly miffed at the authors. I think the authors should have contacted me, acknowledged that they saw my review, and ask if they minded if they cited me in the acknowledgements. That might have led to a more lengthy correspondence, and perhaps a more beneficial use of my advice to them. But this is a minor point. Another consideration is that the authors (presumably) used my review to improve the paper, so I am happy to have contributed in that sense.

I started off my career, back in pre-email days, writing reviews on university letterhead, a BIG mistake! One time a publisher asked me to review a couple of chapters from a new textbook (by a colleague I knew pretty well) and promised me anonymity. I thought the chapters left a lot to be desired and said so. The next time I talked to the author, they thanked me for my "frank" review. "How did you know it was me?" I asked. Well, it seems the publisher had covered up my signature but not the university letterhead! I was teaching at Loyola University of Chicago, and I was the only archaeologist on the faculty. It was pretty clear to the author that I must have written the review. That was when I switched to writing reviews on a separate sheet with no identifying marks. That seemed to work, until now.

So, what is the lesson here? Although I often feel that anonymity should be avoided in the interests of collegiality and collaboration, it does have its uses. If a journal claims to use blind peer reviewing, then they should adhere to their standards and not compromise them. And if you are writing a review and really want to remain anonymous, consider the reputation of the journal and its editor. You can always contact the editor to mention your concern about anonymity; that might reduce the chances of slippage as in my case today.

For more information about anonymity in peer review (in relation to double-blind reviewing), see my older post on this. Both of those older posts have some bibliographic citations on types of peer review and their implications.

From: PhD Comics

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