Should peer review stop being anonymous?
Prominent researchers can take the gamble, but junior scientists risk retribution
Like anything else, science is built on power structures. Influential scientists can ruin other peoples' careers if they want. A senior scientist can influence who gets hired for a job, who gets tenure, or – perhaps most importantly – who gets research grants. To be awarded a grant, you need to show, among other things, that you and your lab have been producing papers. To produce papers, run a lab, and be a successful scientist, you need grant money. Yes, it's a circle.
Papers and grants are subject to criticisms, a process called "peer review." When a paper gets submitted to a journal, the journal solicits other scientists in the same general field to give comments and essentially dictate whether to accept or reject the paper.
Usually, these comments are anonymous. They can range from a most satisfying rubber-stamping, to helpful, genuine constructive criticism, to oddly vicious and nonsensical comments. This is frequently a frustrating experience, and people can be left feeling wronged or even targeted.
That's why reviews are usually anonymous: to protect reviewers and give them space to leave honest feedback. The fear is that a younger scientist, someone still trying to get papers, grant money, or tenure could negatively review the work of an older, more established person. Not out of spite, but because older scientists are just as capable of terrible work as anyone else. Then, out of spite, using positions given to senior researchers like grant and tenure review committees or editing a journal, an older scientist could shoot down grant proposals, reject papers, or decline to award that younger scientist tenure (not being awarded tenure is usually the equivalent of being fired). Anonymity allows space for constructive criticism. And that doesn't just protect them from retribution over poor reviews, but from sexism or racism as well.
Kay Tye is a professor in MIT's department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. She's a big-name scientist, with piles of citations. She works in a hot field at one of the most prestigious, grant-awarded universities on the planet. She has tenure. Recently, she tweeted that she was going to start signing her name on her reviews "to promote transparency, accountability and fairness."
That's very noble! Science is horribly opaque in many ways. The same anonymity that protects junior scientists can leave paper authors wondering why their work got negative reviews or how to navigate a politically tense field. Tye cited Leslie Vosshall, another neuroscientist, who signs her views because she "decided to be ethical."
Cons of coming forward
But many people reacting to Tye's announcement didn't see a noble act but, rather, an empty gesture. Some people said that knowing the names of your reviewers isn't actually useful information. Others continued to worry about bullying and revenge-taking. Still others worried about unconscious transactions, where a positive impression left by a signed review, even by someone the authors have never met, could result in a positive review in exchange if the roles get reversed.
Fear of retribution can't be dismissed. I'm a straight, white man and I would never sign a review. I would only stand to lose from doing it (what do I care about appearing ethical? I can't pay rent with ethics). If someone like me is afraid, imagine the consequences a woman, a person of color, an LGBTQ+ person, or another marginalized minority might face for criticizing a vindictive author. Even Tye herself admitted she did not recommend the move for younger scientists.
The craziest thing is that young scientists have been shown to give the best reviews, so encouraging them to actually do them should be a priority. Improving the peer view process is a great idea – it can feel like a kangaroo court, where faceless judges pass whimsically harsh sentences. But I doubt signed reviews will help much.
This debate goes back a long way, and there are other ways peer review is being improved. Preprinting, where an unedited, unreviewed version of a paper is simply deposited online where anyone can read it, has been a staple in math, physics, and astronomy for decades and is becoming mainstream in biology as well. This helps circumvent the inherent issues in reviewing: no matter what happens in review, the data gets out there.
One particularly interesting approach is at the journal eLife. There, responses are not the usual handful of sometimes contradictory opinions. Instead, reviewers are allowed to communicate with each other in a chat room, and they all come to a single, unified opinion (yes, like a jury). The British Medical Journal, for the last 20 years, has had partially open review, where reviewers names are published if the paper is accepted, but not if it's rejected. The American Naturalist, in contrast, has gone the other way. There, review can be double-blind, where both the paper's authors and its reviewers are anonymous.
There's no such thing as a professional science critic, no Michiko Kakutani whose whole job is to opine on research. Until there is – New York Times, please answer my calls – peer review will have to do. It should be productive and helpful, and not grounds for back-stabbing and revenge.