The anonymous referee

In academic articles, you sometimes come across a paragraph that makes no sense (even on a second or third reading). Very often you will find, attached to this paragraph, a footnote, which says something like the following

“We thank the anonymous referee for drawing our attention to this.”

To the anonymous referee, that is exactly what is being said. But to anyone else reading the article it translates as

“We had to put this in our article in order to get it published because the anonymous referee is an idiot and insisted on it.”

One can then proceed to read the paper, ignoring that paragraph. This seems wrong to me. On the one hand I understand the trade-off: no publication vs make one little, albeit nonsensical, change. I would like to think I have more honour, more backbone than that, but I probably do not.

I think the anonymous peer review system is flawed. And it appears I’m not the only that thinks so.
Peer review is currently (at least in some fields and journals, not all though) double blind. In theory the referee does not know whose paper they are reviewing and the author does not know who the referee is (in practice, I think, anonymity is hardly guaranteed, especially in fields where there are a small number of specialists. Your writing, the references you choose (especially your own papers) can give you away).

It is one side of this double blindness that bothers me – that referees are anonymous. The other side may have flaws too, but at least it should prevent a paper being accepted merely because it is written by a bigshot academic.

Referee anonymity absolves journals of the responsibility of explaining their choice of referee (if they choose a referee obviously against the line of research or too obviously biased for it). It also means referees are not held accountable for their reviews. They may not take the process seriously and out of sheer laziness rather than malice block good research or let bad research pass.

I think that if referees are made known it will allow for greater dialogue. Referees can be challenged. Their reputations depend on being thorough. The feedback process may in fact lead to better research.

I think I, like one Dr Bertrand Meyer (see below), will always insist on signing my reviews (if I am ever in the position to review work for publication). My reputation is important to me. I want my reviews to reflect on my reputation (otherwise I will not take them seriously) and I want them to be thorough and thoughtful (otherwise they will reflect badly on my reputation).


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