Anonymous referees

Anyone who submits their first paper to a journal soon becomes aware of the “peer review” process: probably the single greatest contributor to academic suspicion and anxiety.  Of course, these “peers” fall into two categories: the “esteemed colleague” (helpful); the “witless wonder” (negative, and prone to crushing your paper).  Write a book, a play or an operatic score, and your critics in the media have a name.  You could even find out where they keep their pet rabbit.  They are accountable. Yet, editors of journals claim to have a “duty of confidentiality” towards those referees who opt for anonymity: guess which category most often does. At one time or another, most academics asked for critiques by learned journals only to recommend rejection have succumbed to “taking the veil”.  Equally, there are few researchers who have not suffered a similar fate to one they may have meted out themselves.  Learning by experience is not necessarily a strong point among scientists.  A typical case came to my notice recently, but the identity of one faceless and repugnant referee eventually became clear.  I know him well.  He too had suffered acute stress from a grossly delayed manuscript and the vicious comment of an anonymous referee some years back, yet saw fit to indulge his own spleen when offered a place in the shade: goodness only knows why, but in this case I have my suspicions.

The whole scientific community grows increasingly uneasy about anonymous peer-review, and the abuse that it sometimes makes possible. Examples are deliberate delays by unnamed referees engaged in similar research or related commercial activity, plagiarism, incompetence and the self-indulgence of gratuitously destructive and belittling comment.  It is the near-universal policy of referee anonymity that allows these unwholesome practices to fester and grow.  Most journals give their referees the option of coming out of the closet, or remaining smugly behind its door.  Some assume anonymity, so that a referee has to ask explicitly for their name to be revealed.  Anonymous referees are simply moral cowards, along with editors of the journals that give them a cloak. What do they fear?  Are direct questions about their comments cause for timidity?

Referee malpractice can be removed completely by editors refusing to allow referees to skulk behind anonymity. Now, in the UK at least, it seems possible to challenge this unwholesome editorial prerogative, because of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (2002 Scotland), which came into force on 1 Jan 2005, and the Data Protection Act 1998.  Resorting to the Acts ought not to be necessary as regards the activities of scholarly journals, yet editors continue to defend the more faceless of their referees.  No doubt there would be a temporary shortage of referees should compulsory “outing” become the norm, but it would remove those who do engage in malpractice.  The most important result would be an increase in objectively constructive comment, which softens the blow of a rejection slip by showing a way forward to authors.   Peer-review should work both ways, and should be seen to be honest.


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