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?



2 thoughts on “Should an anonymous peer review always remain anonymous?”

  1. I am trying to figure out a circumstance when revealing you were a “blind” reviewer would be necessary. As someone who’s reviewed a lot of papers, I do occasionally have the inclination to talk to the author to provide some advice and/or encouragement. But that’s a desire, not a necessity. Perhaps I review a paper whose author might be someone with whom I’d like to collaborate – I could wait until the paper is published and approach the person. If the paper isn’t published, and I’m dying for a collaboration, surely there’s a way I can approach him/her without revealing I was a reviewer? Most of us know people who know people working on the same kind of stuff we are, so an email from “out of the blue” wouldn’t be out of line.

    Since I can’t think of a necessary reason for revealing the reviewer, and since we do pledge anonymity, I fall on the side against disclosure. We’ve told everyone it’s a blind process, so it should remain a blind process.

  2. Thanks for your note, Nancy. I was previously an editor, and my suggestion for you situation would be as follows: Email the editor, and let her know of your interest. She can pass along the request to the author if she is comfortable with that – indicating that there is someone interested in working with the author that may have been a reviewer. That way, no names are disclosed unless the editor, and the author, and of course you, agree to the arrangement. I fully agree with you that the blind process, in general, should remain blind.

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