The Hard Way #6: Anonymity and the Review Process

Wouldn’t it be great if this post were anonymous, and I could say everything that I think about anonymity in the review process?

Maybe I will anyway. Here’s the caveat that I think makes me have something to offer here. I’ve published in about 30 journals, reviewed for more than 40, and edited two of them in a meaningful capacity. This is post is mostly about journals because book reviews are usually single-blind, but I edit two book series and have published a couple of books. So, here’s my take in a nice, ordered list:

  1. Journal peer-review is in theory double-blind, where the author does not know the reviewers and  the reviewers do not know the authors.
  2. This almost never works perfectly. Some people [insert normative judgment here] google the paper title when they are reviewing. Others recognize a conference presentation, a research program, a research community, or a writing style familiar to them and can therefore easily deduce authorship. Still others [insert normative judgment here again] ask around their research communities until they find out. The more well-connected a reviewer is in the discipline (a quality you want in reviewers), the more likely they are to be able to deduce authorship of a piece. While this is easier to avoid for junior scholars, the better networked you are, the bigger the risk of non-anonymity is. Some reviewers also identify themselves, either intentionally (by a signature catch-phrase) or unintentionally (by being all mad you don’t cite their work enough.
  3. Nonetheless, it is important (in my view) to preserve the blindness when you can and to treat the process as if it is blind even when it isn’t. The rest of this post will try to explain why I think that, since it is somewhat controversial these days.

While advocates and critics of the double-blind peer review process are populous in the field, the “Hard Way” posts are not about the philosophy of how the field should work – they are about the practice of how it does and how to incorporate knowledge of that into the professional development of graduate students and junior scholars. If the double-blind peer review system is to survive or die, it will not be on whether or not those people try to approximate it early in their careers. As a result, my suggestion that you approximate anonymity is not about the normative value of anonymity in the review process – it is about the current professional structure and the benefits that will give you.

As a reviewer, maintaining your own anonymity will make the chance that a journal editor ever finds out that you identified yourself zero, rather than small. That makes that journal editor more likely to use you for future reviews. Future reviews mean more professional integration. Any disclosure that you are the reviewer puts that at risk – however small the risk is. A disclosure that is not in your review also risks that a journal editor (and an author) find out that you violated the presumption of author anonymity. You may expect an author you tell that you did a review to be grateful for the positive feedback and positive review, but you cannot predict whether that will actually be the reaction or not. If it isn’t, and the author is mad, you will have two professional enemies: the author and the journal editor. And having no professional enemies is better than having two. You might think that I am (falsely) assuming that there is no professional benefit to self-identification. I’m not making that assumption. Instead, I’m making the assumption that any benefit is volatile, contingent, and unpredictable, and therefore not worth taking a known risk.

As a junior author in the field, you will get no benefit from either looking for the identity of the Reviewers or from identifying yourself. I know that there is a morbid curiosity about who wrote bad reviews. I accidentally found out who wrote the review referenced in the post about rejection, and, while it did satisfy my morbid curiosity, it did nothing else of value for me – at least not in the first seven years of knowing. While you may feel like knowledge of who a reviewer is constitutes power, it doesn’t – because you have exactly the same amount of power with anonymous reviewers as identified ones. If they wrote an unprofessional review, you can draw the journal editor’s attention to it. The reviewer is not anonymous to the journal editor, and most journal editors are fairly strict about professionalism in reviews. So they will get theirs, most likely. I also know you might want to carry on the conversation with the Reviewer after the process is complete. If it is an intellectual conversation with a future for the participants, authors and reviewers might ask journal editors to ask for their permission to identify themselves. That’s the right path, though, not the google machine.

You also won’t get benefit from trying either to identify yourself or to mislead reviewers about your identity. A reviewer that cares who you are is generally not going to be impressed with someone junior in the field for their name, and a reviewer that cares who you are is also generally not going to be a great reviewer. You only risk looking unprofessional by trying to blur these lines. And, though I will save it for another post and ask you to do as I say not as I do, I think that any time one can avoid looking unprofessional in a system one is trying to leverage to one’s own benefit, it is a good idea to do so.