Should an anonymous peer review always remain anonymous?

From all accounts, the Academy meeting in Vancouver was a huge success. We had record breaking attendance, beautiful weather, and a wealth of interesting and provocative sessions. I also experienced a few interesting ethically related discussions, and I thought it would be worthwhile sharing a few of them in these next few blogs. The first ‘discussion’ had to do with peer review disclosure.

I was having a conversation with a very well known scholar when another colleague approached us, recognized this individual, and proceeded to tell him how much he liked the paper that was published in journal XYZ, as that he was one of the blind reviewers for that article.  Suddenly, realizing that he was standing next to the ethicist blogger, he looked at me and stated “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have disclosed that, what do you think Benson”?   As the well known scholar ‘rolled his eyes’, I proceeded to explain that, in my opinion, a blind review is designed to be anonymous not only before publication, but afterwards as well. The reviewer wanted to know why that was the case – and I shared my own perspective: Identifying oneself as a reviewer on a published work could only create some sort of obligation – a social exchange that might be bartered later into some sort of expected favor. After all, if we didn’t expect continued anonymity, why wouldn’t journals simply state, upon publication, the names of the blind reviewers? Surely they would deserve some of the credit for the publication? My view is that the reviewing process should be maintained as an anonymous volunteer activity, disassociated with any sense of possible obligation or appreciation, beyond what the editor and author (anonymously) provides.  Forever….

Later on, I discussed this small incident with another senior scholar and an editor. Surprisingly, the editor couldn’t see a reason why not to disclose the review after publication. His point was that once the publication was accepted, disclosure would only show support and respect for the work undertaken.  The other senior scholar in the conversation pointed out the ‘slippery slope’ problem – that opening up this door would suggest other possible avenues of potential influence. For example, if you were the one reviewer that wrote the most problematic reviews, would you want this disclosed? If you had two favorable reviewers, and one that was a real ‘pain’, would it be fair to help reveal who that third person might be through a process of elimination? Further, if you let it be know that you are the ‘good cop’ in the reviewing process, would you develop a reputation that attracted certain benefits or advantages, that more silent reviewers failed to appreciate?

In searching for an official answer to these questions, I first began with our own code of ethics. While it addresses the issue of confidentiality, there is insufficient detail to precisely indicate what our normative behavior should be, although there is an emphasis on maintaining confidentiality. Specifically:

Maintaining Confidentiality:

2.1.1. AOM members take reasonable precautions to protect the confidentiality rights of others.

2.1.2. Confidential information is treated as such even if it lacks legal protection or privilege.

2.1.3. AOM members maintain the integrity of confidential deliberations, activities, or roles, including, where applicable, those of committees, review panels, or advisory groups (e.g., the AOM Placement Committee, the AOM Ethics Adjudication Committee, etc.). In reviewing material submitted for publication or other evaluation purposes, AOM members respect the confidentiality of the process and the proprietary rights of those who submitted the material.

Given our own code is not particularly explicit, I took a look at the peer review policy of Nature, one of the preeminent scientific journals of our time:

As a condition of agreeing to assess the manuscript, all reviewers undertake to keep submitted manuscripts, associated data, and their own peer review comments confidential, and not to redistribute them without permission from the journal. If a reviewer seeks advice from colleagues while assessing a manuscript, he or she ensures that confidentiality is maintained and that the names of any such colleagues are provided to the journal with the final report. By this and by other means, Nature journals endeavour to keep the content of all submissions confidential until the publication date other than in the specific case of its embargoed press release available to registered journalists. Peer review comments should remain confidential after publication unless the referee obtains permission from the corresponding author of the reviewed manuscript and the Nature journal the comments were delivered to. Although we go to every effort to ensure reviewers honour their promise to ensure confidentiality, we are not responsible for the conduct of reviewers.

Following that, I also took a look at the policy of Science, another outstanding scientific journal:

Confidentiality: We expect reviewers to protect the confidentiality of the manuscript and ensure that it is not disseminated or exploited. Please destroy your copy of the manuscript when you are done. Only discuss the paper with a colleague with permission from the editor. We do not disclose the identity of our reviewers

Thus, while some journals seem to indicate continued confidentiality is expected, it appears that there may be differences of opinion, interpretation, and possibly even confusion regarding what is expected of a blind reviewer, and what would be considered professional or unprofessional conduct.

It would be great if a some of our members weighed in regarding their own opinion on this matter: Do you think it appropriate for a reviewer to disclose that they were part of the double blind process, after publication?



When scholars are sued for their research

I was told an interesting story recently, and while I am not fully certain about the details or validity, I thought it would make an interesting subject to discuss. The story went like this:

Two faculty members were involved, separately, in doing research on a similar subject – in this case, something related to genetic research. One faculty member believes the other has followed a completely erroneous methodology, essentially invalidating that persons’ work. They sit and discuss this over lunch, and the person accused of making the error get’s furious and storms out. A week or two later, the ‘accuser’ gets a letter from the other faculty member’s lawyer. It is a cease and desist letter, indicating that any further mention of his opinion regarding the asserted methodological errors or limitations, in any public capacity whatsoever, will be met with an anti-defamation lawsuit.

Lawsuits by the private sector against academics are not particularly new. Firms have a vested interest in protecting their businesses and their reputations against slander. So, when one professor asserted that a private firm was a consistent violator of labor laws, they engaged a lawyer in an attempt to set the record straight.

In this case, the lawyer for the firm stated: ”It’s not our desire to destroy anyone or harm anyone. If we could arrive at some accommodation to set this situation right and to set the record straight, that’s all we’re looking for. We just want the truth.”

Of course, what is ‘true’ can be quite subjective, as any reviewer or scholar will freely admit. While many of us maintain we are in the business of seeking truth, or something closely akin, one person’s truth is another person’s nonsense. Fortunately, academics, as it turns out, are typically insulated from such lawsuits in most countries due to protections of academic freedom and free speech. Imagine if every paper we wrote was subject to a lawsuit by anyone, colleague or not, who didn’t agree with our methodology, conclusions or theoretical framework.

So, what does AOM’s code of ethics have to say on this subject? Well, broadly, we begin with integrity:

AOM members seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of their profession. In these activities AOM members do not steal, cheat, or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact. They strive to keep their promises, to avoid unwise or unclear commitments, and to reach for excellence in teaching, scholarship, and practice. They treat students, colleagues, research subjects, and clients with respect, dignity, fairness, and caring. They accurately and fairly represent their areas and degrees of expertise.

Further, we have clear suggestion in reference to our professional environment:

  1. To the Academy of Management and the larger professional environment. Support of the AOMs mission and objectives, service to the AOM and its institutions, and recognition of the dignity and personal worth of colleagues are required. We accomplish these aims through:
  •  Sharing and dissemination of information. To encourage meaningful exchange, AOM members should foster a climate of free interchange and constructive criticism within the AOM and should be willing to share research findings and insights fully with other members.
  •  Membership in the professional community. It is the duty of AOM members to interact with others in our community in a manner that recognizes individual dignity and merit.

4.1.3.  AOM members take particular care to present relevant qualifications to their research or to the findings and interpretations of their research. AOM members also disclose underlying assumptions, theories, methods, measures, and research designs that are relevant to the findings and interpretations of their work.

  • 1.4.  In keeping with the spirit of full disclosure of methods and analyses, once findings are publicly disseminated, AOM members permit their open assessment and verification by other responsible researchers, with appropriate safeguards, where applicable, to protect the anonymity of research participants.
  • 1.5.  If AOM members discover significant errors in their publication or presentation of data, they take appropriate steps to correct such errors in the form of a correction, retraction, published erratum, or other public statement.

Thus, in the case of our two faculty members , it appears as though resorting to legal means in order to protect one’s reputation – accurately or not – is a deviation from our professional norms. Rather than hiring a lawyer, the offended scholar would be better advised to take the argument to the journals. Further, if true, it demonstrates a scholarly insecurity and fear of a critique of that person’s reputation that almost defies my imagination. If our scholarly opinions become shuttered due to the capability of a disagreeing scholar to employ an expensive lawyer, the entire foundation of our scholarship becomes undermined.