Eyes Wide Shut : The Anonymous Workings of Peer Review

Aug 24 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!, Links Best Served Cold


Since my writings on the Hauser controversy several weeks ago, I have watched the scandal unfold with some interest.  This is not least because the post I wrote was subjected to some fairly vicious attacks, both in the comments section and in comments on other blogs.  I was accused of ‘gossip-mongering’ and ‘idle speculation,’ among other, less savory activities.  On one blog, it was even suggested that I had anonymously commented on my own post as a supposed ‘insider’ to lend credence to my story.  (For the record : come on!)

Given the potential fall-out for researchers associated with Hauser, I can understand why tempers might be running hot.  However, one of the things that has interested me throughout the process, is that all of the nastiest comments I’ve received have been anonymous.  Certainly, there have been self-identified researchers who politely disagreed with me or pressed me to justify or clarify certain statements.  Yet, for the most part, hostility arose from the nameless.  Anonymity, it would seem, empowered commentors to lash out against me in a way that I expect they never would in ‘real life’ [1, 2].

This is hardly a new observation.  Ever since the dawn of the Internet age, people have lost themselves behind the mask of anonymity, in sexy chatrooms and idle online pranking, in sartorial forums and fanfiction nets.  Anonymity strips away some of the moral imperatives and ‘civilizing’ impulses that might normally restrain us, since we no longer run the risk of being caught or brought to task.  And like a drug, it looses us of our inhibitions and embarrassments – sometimes in good ways, and other times not.  In this brave new world, we can maintain something of a dichotomy between our public personas, which we present to the world; our private personas, which we present to our closest circle of friends and family; and our ‘anonymous’ personas, which can take on any number of different guises [3].

In a very important sense, there is an aspect of ‘civility’ that can be lost in anonymity.  Our social and culture mores about what one does and doesn’t say can be all too blithely ignored; writing or commenting, we can forget what is kind, what is respectful, and what is warranted.  We write fearlessly because there is no retribution worth fearing.  But we also write recklessly, for the same reason.

Certainly, there is a time and a place for anonymity [4].  But there are certain spheres where it has no place.  One is a court of law.  We can easily imagine how strange it would be if witnesses could give testimony ‘anonymously,’ and the content of their character and their actual relation to the case went unexamined by the jury.  The pursuit of justice, we might protest, could far too easily fall prey to the dishonest or vengeful.

Another place where anonymity is harmful is in peer review.  The review process demands a form of testimony and expert evaluation that should be understood in personal and contextual terms, but usually isn’t.  Instead, the content of reviews is often taken at face value by editors, as if something ‘objective’ has thereby been communicated [5].

Given the workings of the editorial and review process, this stance is a practically-motivated form of insanity.  Editors at many psych journals encounter serious difficulty in finding available reviewers, and can run into even greater problems when trying to secure an appropriate cross-section of research angles and competencies for a given article.  (–Which is another way of saying that it is next to impossible to establish a ‘fair’ sample, in which the reviewers are not too strongly biased for or against the work, but have all the various expertises needed to review it.)  This means that the reviewers that are chosen for any particular article are a rough approximation of the ideal selection, if not fairly wide of the mark.

Allowing for anonymity in review suggests that either this problem does not exist (but it does) or that editors can somehow work around it (but most can’t or don’t).  It is my own view that anonymous review has effectively created a publishing environment that runs counter to the goals of science, and that all reviewers should sign their reviews, and that all reviews of accepted articles should be made available online following publication, as was originally done at PLoS ONE.  This would allow for a great deal more transparency in the process and would give the scientific community at large the power to serve as a check on that process.  But this is admittedly an extreme view, and I want to begin with a much milder proposition:

That the priviledge of being anonymous in the review process should be automatically revoked post-tenure.

Anonymity in review is put in place – at least in theory – to shield young, untenured professors from the vindictiveness of their more senior colleagues.  By design, then, it is meant to correct for the imbalances in a political power structure.  The problem is that when tenured professors are allowed to submit unsigned reviews, the inverse difficulty can arise.  Using their stature as a blank check, senior academics can be as abusive as they like in review, both because their anonymity protects them, and because their seniority entitles them.  If a pet theory is threatened by a younger scientist, they can use their influence to check or block that work coming out, particularly in high status, broad readership journals.

This is anathema to the pursuit of progress, and ensures that there is a great degree of continuity in published research at the expense of change; a diversity of ideas; and real breakthrough.  It also means that cognitive science will necessarily continue in something like Kuhnian cycles, with upstart researchers having to effect a revolution in thought before their science can reach a broad audience.  This continuity-bent is only compounded by the way the tenure process works at American universities, in which researchers are supposed to spend seven years publishing as much uncontroversial work as they possibly can, before giving voice to their ‘real’ theories once they’ve achieved job security.  (If you’re told to be a conformist from day one, why will you be any less of a conformist at day 2555?)

Of course, the entire process is designed to protect young scientists from the politiking of older scientists.  But in fact, the structure breeds a highly politicized climate, in which – ‘protections’ in place – researchers feel free to be as machiavellian as they dare.  In such a clime, personal charisma and unchecked ruthlessness can serve as ciphers for good science, particularly among the elite.

Why believe me?

In an earlier post, I wrote about how the actions of an unscrupulous editor can severely undermine the review process.  In the coming days, I will outline some reasons for thinking that in a politicized climate, the reviewers can be just as dangerous as the editors.  Still, I leave room for cautious optimism: indeed, I think that the danger posed by both parties might be checked if only our reviewers were at last stripped of their anonymity.

[This is the second in a series of posts on the politics of ideas in cognitive science and psychology; the first can be found here.  Here's the next in the series.]

Last words

[1If you follow this blog and prefer to comment anonymously, please feel free! I fully expect that many commenters will choose to remain anonymous, and respect that decision.  Internet commenting is one place where anonymity is not only warranted, but at times, can be the most appropriate choice.

[2This post is not about enforcing ‘civility’ in blogs or other similar domains; I’m more than happy to let people have their say here within certain, minimalist bounds.  To be fair, however, I think the argument that is often made against civility (‘white male patriarchy’ etc) can fast become paternalistic.  On its face, it seems to suggest that minorities and women will somehow be excluded from blogging communities if agreed-upon norms of behavior are enforced.  While I write extensively about how environment influences learning and behavior, I also operate under the closet-existentialist assumption that I have a measure of freedom in my choices, even within certain constraints.  For this reason, I find myself cringing at arguments like this, since they appear to imply that women and other minorities aren’t able to express themselves without resorting to anger, ad hominem attacks and other dirty tactics.

On the other hand, several writers have made the case that enforcing ‘civility’ online can quickly become fascist, particularly given that many of the most emotional or dissident writers are impassioned by their alienation from civil society.  If you’re interested in this viewpoint, I highly recommend The Privilege of Politeness and This is The Patriarchy: When Talking to the Master, Speak in a Civil Tone.  And of course, there’s also Civility, Science Communication, and the White Patriarchy ; Online civility: between 10,000 cliques and 2 cultures, where's the neutral ground? ; and another linkfest by Bora Civility and/or Politeness at ScienceOnline2010.  Thanks to my co-blogger Jason, for alerting me to this debate.

[3] Of course, given the rise of online social networking, the split between public and private is collapsing – which may leave our least socially-constructed selves to the domain of anonymity.

[4Wikipedia proves an interesting testcase because it can be edited by anyone, but is often moderated by no one.  For wikis, anonymity is a servicable (if not necessarily ideal) solution, in which popular opinion – or the sustained work of a particularly tenacious editor – will determine content over time.

While many academics agree that Wikipedia is not necessarily an accurate source of news or information, the site’s traffic reports would suggest that people are reading it in droves anyway.  According to Alexa Traffic Rank, Wikipedia is one of the top ten most visited sites online.  Given, there are over 3 million articles in English alone which might, in part, be driving this ranking.  But at the same time, it’s abundantly clear that people are using Wikis as both repositories and sources of knowledge, and at least on some pages, contributors spend the time to fact check and source the information they provide.  The entry for ‘Scientology,’ for example, has over 267 references; ‘Michael Jackson’ has 320.

Given the earnestness of some editors, it can be quite riveting to watch Wiki pages on controversial topics as they evolve over time.  Take the recent wiki wars on the Marc Hauser page (first reported by @vaughnbell), which has seen a drastic rise in edits since the scandal broke.  Much of the debate appears to center on the question of whether anonymous sources and second-hand reports – which have been reported by credible news agencies – should be taken seriously, or marked as ‘alleged’ or ‘unconfirmed.’  While the registered editors have done some back and forth on how best to frame the allegations, an anonymous IP out of Boston has been furiously deleting new content, and adding words like ‘alleged’ and ‘unconfirmed’ to the proceedings.  Could it be Hauser himself?  Or just another diligent and concerned citizen?  Regardless, it’s fascinating to watch how editors of various interests and biases work together – and sometimes against each other – to manage and vet the information that will be read by the general public.

[5]  This is not always true; there are (rare) cases where an editor will stand up to a group of incompetent reviewers.  But this is not the prescribed role of the editor, and many editors seem hesitant to take it on.

47 responses so far

  • Curious Computer says:

    That's a remarkably American-centric point of view. Is it really the case in your field that all reviewers would come from the US tenure system?

    Coming from computer science, I am more familiar with (double-blind) conference reviewing procedures. In that case, the reviewer is only anonymous to the author(s). The editor/chair and other reviewers all see the reviewer's name attached to a review. To me, that provides a sanity check on a reviewer, while still allowing a reviewer to provide honest criticism without fearing that the author might retaliate. Are journal reviews in cog sci (or other fields) completely anonymous?

    • melodye says:

      A couple of points in this:

      It is the case that many cogsci reviewers come from the US. But the views expressed in my post are hardly an American-centric standpoint; if anything, they're probably the opposite. The head of my lab is British, and we regularly collaborate with Brits, and other foreign nationals. I don't like the American tenure system, and given that I'm American it seemed worth pointing out ; )

      More saliently, this critique is fairly specific to cognitive science and psychology, since I'm not familiar with other fields and don't feel equipped to write about them. I'm not trying to make the case that anonymous peer review should be abolished across disciplines; it may work better for some fields than for others. I could definitely see how that would be the case in fields that had stronger emphasis on engineering solutions : e.g., computational linguistics, which is kissing cousins with cogsci.

      And finally: peer reviewers in psych are anonymous only to the author. I wrote extensively on some of the problems posed by editors in the field in the first post in this series, and will continue this thread on into tomorrow. To be fair, given some of the reviews I've seen (both as an author and as a reviewer), the editors would have to be superheroes to navigate them. The crux of my argument is simply that anonymity facilitates and perpetuates a highly politicized system that exists in my field, and allows reviewers to do and / or say things I think they never would if they were made to sign their reviews. Anonymity also allows editors to pick a poor sample of reviewers and then not correct for it (picking a bad sample is completely understandable; not correcting for it is not).

  • Bob O'H says:

    Another place where anonymity is harmful is in peer review. The review process demands a form of testimony and expert evaluation that should be understood in personal and contextual terms, but usually isn’t.

    But referees aren't anonymous. The editor knows who they are.

    And it is the editor who makse the decision on the manuscript, not the referee.

    Anonymity in review is put in place – at least in theory – to shield young, untenured professors from the vindictiveness of their more senior colleagues. By design, then, it is meant to correct for the imbalances in a political power structure. ... Using their stature as a blank check, senior academics can be as abusive as they like in review, both because their anonymity protects them, and because their seniority entitles them.

    Does this power structure mysteriously disappear when someone gets tenure? Do professors never get vindictive towards their more junior (tenured) colleagues?

    And what of countries which don't have a tenure system?

    Instead, the content of reviews is often taken at face value by editors, as if something ‘objective’ has thereby been communicated [5].

    Doesn't this suggest that editors should be trained to do their jobs properly? They are the ones making the decisions, so shouldn't we target them?

    • Zen Faulkes says:

      While the editor may know who reviewers are, it stretches the concept of anonymity to say that reviewers are not anonymous. They;re unknown to the authors of the reviewed article, the reader of the final article, and to each other.

      While an editor makes a decision, I had within the last month an editor approach me at a conference regarding a manuscript I had submitted, and say, "It's very difficult to go against the reviewers." Because of the individual nature of the editorial process, it's very hard to know how many editors are willing to go against the reviewers. I suspect not many.

      • Bob O'H says:

        While the editor may know who reviewers are, it stretches the concept of anonymity to say that reviewers are not anonymous. They;re unknown to the authors of the reviewed article, the reader of the final article, and to each other.

        But they're known to the person at whom the buck stops - the editor. And the editor isn't anonymous.

        Because of the individual nature of the editorial process, it’s very hard to know how many editors are willing to go against the reviewers.

        This happened to one of my manuscripts twice (different journals, different refs!). But I agree, it can be difficult to persuade an editor that the refs are wrong. But that still suggests to me that the editor is where the problem is, not the referees.

        • melodye says:

          Bob -- check out my earlier post in the series. My critique of the review system is not limited to the reviewers. However, my proposed solution -- as a check on both the reviewers and the editors -- is removing anonymity from the system. I think anonymity in review facilitates (or at the very least enables) bad reviewing, bad editing, and bad politics more generally. As Zen noted, I think the editors have a tremendously difficult job, and it's not helped by the fact that many think they have their hands tied when it comes to bad reviewers.

          • Bob O'H says:

            Would non-anonymous reviewing be much better? It would make it more difficult to criticise big names, even if you do have a permanent position: the big name may well be on your next grant committee, or refereeing your next paper.

            Ideally, bad reviewers shouldn't be a problem. In reality, they always will. But better training for editors (and EiCs, in how to chose editors!) might pay better dividends.

            If I can get my arse into gear tomorrow (or if I lose enthusiasm for reviewing shit), I'll blog about editors and their role. It's often overlooked.

  • Hi

    I don't know if you've seen this critique of the peer review process. It seems relevant.



  • JRQ says:

    So who's job is it going to be to keep track of which reviewers are tenured? And doesn't this assume tenure per se is the deciding factor for who feels free to be abusive? Reputations are not static post-tenure; the opinions of one's colleagues can affect ones professional standing in numerous ways even with tenure -- think grants, collaborations, editorships, governing positions in professional societies, invitations to symposia, etc.

    A reviewer needs to be free to write a highly-critical review when it is warranted, and I'm not convinced simply having tenure grants that freedom. Most of us who review papers regularly receive a lot more flawed papers for review than we do potentially transformative papers. Mandatory signing on critical reviews exposes the reviewer for retaliation even if the review is not actually abusive, and there are many more ways to retaliate than hurting one's chances of getting tenure.

    Scientists are human; they have egos that bruise just as easily as anyone else, and they have just as much capacity for petty vindictiveness as anyone else. Not everyone takes criticism well or reasonably. I would rather reviewers stay anonymous if they so choose and endure a cranky or abusive one here and there, if it helps put a damper on vendettas and clique-ishness.

    • melodye says:

      See, I think that the lack of transparency in the review process promotes (and perpetuates) vendettas and cliqueishness; both of those things currently exist in the system and in the field at large, and I think are far worse because of the way the process works.

      Under the current system, editors can cherry pick reviewers who may be extremely biased for or against a paper, and indeed, who may not even be competent to review the paper. There is no established standard (or transparency) into how editors select reviewers, or how they adjudicate reviews. An unscrupulous editor may decide to ignore solid reviewers to help a favored paper through to publication, while an overly timid editor may feel bound by the decision of several, clearly incompetent reviews.

      The problems with reviewers are much the same. Under the guise of anonymity, a reviewer can be as biased, as incompetent, and as lazy as she wishes, and all the more so, if she is established within the field.

      Anonymity is what allows reviewers and editors to be extremely cliqueish.

      My view is that all reviews should be signed and all reviews should be made available to the public for perusal and commentary. There's a difference between a highly critical review that's fair, and a nasty, incompetent review. The attitude that "I don't want to openly criticize anyone else's viewpoint, but I'd happily do it behind their backs" is what promotes this kind of ugly academic culture in the first place.

  • Andrew says:

    I entirely disapprove of anonymous review; I sign all my reviews because I think it's important that I make it clear that I stand behind what I have to say about a paper. I have one useful advantage here; while I'm junior faculty, I'm in the UK and not on an American style tenure track, so the kind of retaliation being discussed here is less of an issue.

    Anonymous review gives reviewers (like internet commenters) permission to not only be mean but half-assed. My 'favourite' example of this was a paper I reviewed by some people I know and like - I thought it was ok but not publishable in the journal in question for various reasons which I detailed as carefully as I could. Reviewer 2 felt happy with submitting a review that said, and I quote, "I didn't really understand the maths but the figures looked ok. There's a typo on page 4. I support publication". The fact that this was a detailed model paper made this review even more criminal, and the icing on the cake was that the editor accepted it as a review and published the paper.

    Peer review is not supposed to catch fraud - it can't. It's supposed to catch poor science (shoddy design, poor analysis, etc). This is an important job and I wish more people took it seriously.

    I like reviewing papers: I like being able to help kill stupid papers and help good ones.

    • Andrew signs all his reviews yet remains anonymous here on this blog. How bizarre. Who is Andrew?

      "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."
      John A. Davison


      • Gary says:

        Dr. Davison, if you follow the link in Andrew's name you can get to here : http://www.fbs.leeds.ac.uk/staff/profile.php?tag=Wilson_A

        • Gary

          Thank you. I now understand. It is only those whose name appears in blue who choose to identify themselves. It would be nice to know the identity of ALL those who comment at Scientopia. Apparently I expect too much here as elsewhere.

          Imagine, if you can, a scientific literature with anonymous authors. Anonymity all too often becomes license for abuse which is why I discourage it on my blog. However, I allow it when that becomes evident because it reveals the character of the abuser. I am convinced that if anonymity was forbidden, while the volume of commentary would definitely be greatly reduced, its quality would be vastly improved.


  • John Hawks says:

    Melody, I agree with much of what you've written. It seems to me that the tenure system has very little impact on anonymous review. And if it did, a young scientist can turn down the invitation to review a potential letter-writer.

    I think the risk of payback for poor journal reviews comes on grant applications, where getting a single poor review can sink your application. In the worst case, someone to whom you've given a poor journal review may sit on a grant review panel.

    When you get a bad journal review, worst case is you send to another journal. Two or three bad grant reviews can shut down your research. The same pool of people are going to be reviewing each other for both, so you either avoid the conflict through anonymity or through systematically inflated reviews.

    • melodye says:

      @John Hawks

      That's an interesting point, and one I'm going to think about in revising my post for tomorrow. I think the larger problem is that all of these things (grant and award committees, review, etc) are done anonymously. There's no transparency in any of it.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I had never considered a connection between review and tenure. I have recommended, early in my career, that papers submitted by leaders in my field not be published, and they were not. I'm all for listing the reviewers of each paper, as some journals do. You notice that I am not big on anonymity. In later years I focused on a fairly small area, where a half dozen of us reviewed each other's papers. I would say that we all called them as we saw them, and helped each other publish better papers, which is the purpose of the review process.

  • If you're tenured (disclaimer: I'm not tenure track), you can still be retaliated against in grant panels, which I would argue is far more serious than the occasional article rejection.

    In my experience, both as a reviewer and and being reviewed, I think these claims of abuse are overblown, or else, most scientists are petty jerks.

    • melodye says:

      Mike -- you're a "mad biologist" not a psychologist : ) I would bet you that review is an entirely different animal in other fields.

      Another thing, which I'll talk about tomorrow is that I don't think people are consciously 'jerks.' I think their behavior is created contextually, within the climate of a very political environment. (It's kind of like in Zimbardo's prison experiment -- people behave strangely in strange circumstances). At least in psych, I think that changing the review process can help change the culture.

      • Jason G. Goldman says:

        Oh, I don't know. I'm inclined to agree with MtMB on this one. I think this is a description of outliers rather than common exemplars. And I'm not convinced that psychologist scientists behave so much differently from e.g. biological scientists in terms of reviewing papers, grants, etc. After all - many of us publish in the same journals!

  • Ejypt says:

    2 things:
    1) Wikipedia isn't really as egalitarian as most people think. There's a select few people who do a ton of edits, then a long tail of people (like me) who do about 5 edits in their whole lifetime. Benevolent technocracy of sorts? I dunno if there's a word for editor-ocracy, but that's it. And it does work well, you're probably familiar with the Nature study comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica, which found them to be roughly equivalent. As a librarian, I think it's a great encyclopedia, particularly for IT and pop culture stuff. But you shouldn't cite encyclopedias in research papers; it has nothing to do with the specific nature of W's editing just the nature of its format.
    2) re: Anonymity, this definitely relates to the "Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory" http://goo.gl/Uzbp

    • melodye says:

      Thanks for pointing me to the Nature paper; it's definitely interesting. I thought it was amazing that they only found on average 3 to 4 errors per article from either source. I wonder how they were deciding what counted as an error? Because I know the psychology wikis have SO many errors, it's unbelievable. And some things that wouldn't properly count as errors, but are highly suspect anyway. For instance, people will edit them to advertise their pet theories. Like "yeah, check out this guy who no one's ever heard of and his amazing new theory of X..." I mean, technically it's not in error. That guy really said that and published in some podunk journal. But it's a question of how information should be presented and vetted, and how the overarching views of the field should be depicted for a broad audience. Psych wikis are generally pretty terrible in that regard...

      • Ejypt says:

        Hmm, that's interesting that you find psychology to be so poor. Wikipedia is very variable from discipline to discipline; I've found their biology, astronomy, math, and (in particular) computer science stuff to be pretty excellent, but I'm hardly qualified to judge accuracy. I would attribute inaccuracy to more equivocal fields which are basically just one contention vs. another (i.e. their philosophy articles are often flawed in a similar way), but psych is pretty stats-based these days so I'm not sure the shoe fits.

  • DMR Sekhar says:

    Excellent. I think that the anonymous peer review has limited use for upcoming scientists and the future is for Post Publication Open Review which we are experimenting with. May kindly see this link:

    DMR Sekhar.

  • It is the Editor who chooses the reviewers. The reponsibility for the posture of every journal lies exclusively with the Editors of those journals. Thus a fair peer review is often quite impossible if it conflicts with the philosophy of the Editor or Editors. I agree that anonymity on the part of reviewers is unacceptable. I wrote an essay to that effect - "The Cowardice of Anonymity" - which can be read by poking the ESSAYS button at the top of my home page -


    I discourage anonymity on my weblog and tend to disregard comments from anonymous sources. How can one respect the convictions of a person who must hide his identity? On certain occasions I find it useful to allow certain messages to stand as testimonial to the character of the source. Two revealing examples are comments from "woot" and "PZPolice," both of whom I wouldn't dream of deleting!

    I believe that Gregor Mendel published his 1868 paper in a journal for which he was an Editor - (The Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brunn (Austria)) because he knew his findings would be unacceptable to the Editors of the botanical journals of his day, in particular to Karl Nageli who had been very critical of Mendel's work in private correspondence -

    "Your work is empirical but not rational."

    Of course that which is empirical need not be rational.

    Since I have experienced similar opposition to some of my evolutionary views, I some time ago changed the name of my weblog to "The Proceedings of the Natural History Society of South Burlington (Vermont), a journal for which I am the sole Editor. There I continue to publish my interpretations of organic evolution and certain other subjects free of the restraints that may impede publication in the leading journals of today. I never experienced editorial resistance until I became interested in the great unsolved mystery of the mechanism by which organic evolution took place in the past, a mechanism that I believe is no longer in operation today.

    In short -

    "A past evolution is undeniable, a present evolution undemonstrable."


  • AK Purohit says:

    Post publication review is the need of hour. the world is advancing fast on the tracks of super specialisations, vis a vis , the relevence of holistic and trans-discipline knowledge can not be , and should not be under estimated. The tenurial peer reviews
    may continue for subject specific research outcomes, while, in order to avoid biases and irreverence for extra territorial contributions, post publication open review seems to be a rational proposition.

    There is a vedic hymn--Let noble thoughts pour from all sides.


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