Experiences with signing peer reviews

There’s always discussion about peer review. I’m sure your group does the same as mine — for every anonymous peer review we get, we guess who the author might have been. It’s more than just curiosity. Knowing who authored a critique might help in finding a convincing reply by addressing what the reviewer really finds relevant. It might allow asking back to clarify if a comment remains unclear to us.
But maybe most of all, sometimes I’d really like to know what made a reviewer write a disrespectful, bashing review.

Different ideas of how peer review should be done

You can see on Twitter that some scientists are thinking about signing their reviews, but are worried about the consequences if their review is critical of the study. In fact, some have suggested that peer reviews should be signed by those who have gained tenure (implying that, if you haven’t, it might have serious, negative consequences).

Others are proposing much more radical changes to the peer review system. Some have suggested that reviewers should be allowed to publish their reviews on their blog. This would, for instance, show the contributions we make as reviewers, which are currently secret and invisible. Some openness about the review process is emerging in the publishing world. Frontiers publishes the names of the reviewers with each article, and PeerJ publishes the full content of the reviews if the paper’s authors and reviewers consent.

Still others suggest to get rid of the current review practices entirely, and instead to publish o preprint servers, with peer review being performed post-publication, by an online comment/reply procedure.

Writing anonymous reviews

When I started in science, I got to know the standard model of anonymous peer review from both sides.
On the giving end, it is comfortable to know that the authors won’t know who you are. This way, it’s easier to criticise and doubt the manuscript under review. But then again, don’t we discuss and criticize each other’s work at every conference we go to? Why does it feel so much harder to sign a review than it does to state your opinion at a poster? Sure, something written is more durable than something you say at a meeting, but as a reviewer, I am doubting, criticising, and questioning a paper with the openness to be convinced by the authors in scientific debate. Thus, it should be normal that some of the things I write in a review are wrong.

And then, once I was more known in my field, there was this thing about trying to remain anonymous. You know, this situation where the authors aren’t aware of your paper that perfectly fits their argument, or that should be cited for some other reason? How do you include that in an “anonymous” review without revealing who you are? And, the situation in which a colleague, at a conference, came up to me and told me he knew I was the reviewer because that one experimental condition I had suggested could only be coming from me. Anonymity: nice concept, often hard to guarantee in scientific debate.

Getting anonymous reviews

On the receiving end, peer review proved hard, too. Haven’t we all gotten those reviews that we had to put away for a few days before we felt we could face the seeming destruction they meant to our work… But worse, we’ve all gotten those troll reviews. Reviews written in a manner lacking respect, that bash our work and we just don’t understand why. I often wonder whether those reviewers had used the same tone if they had signed their review.

Signing reviews: positive effects

Then I started getting some signed reviews. Overall, their number is still small, maybe 10% of all the reviews I’ve received. But I was surprised about my own response to these reviews. Even if they were very critical, the one thing that stands out to me is that I never had the feeling that they were disrespectful. For whatever weird psychological reason, knowing that there was a name to the review made it much easier to get to work on them. Now, you might think, sure, these people signed their reviews because they didn’t have any substantial criticism. Not at all. Their reviews were just as critical. One asked us to redo our entire data analysis.

I met my reviewers at conferences in three cases, and each time talked to them about the review. It was, in each case, an informative discussion, and never awkward. Even with the reviewer who asked us to redo the analysis…

With all these experiences of writing and receiving reviews, I decided a while ago that I would sign my own reviews from now on. And I was surprised by the responses I got. One reviewer wrote me after the paper was through, thanking me for the “contributions” and asking for pdfs of my publications. At a recent conference, the first author of a paper which had been rejected came to me and told me that he had found my review very helpful (whereas I had feared he’d think me a prick), and we had a nice conversation.

One thing that is clear to me: although I still write tough reviews when it’s called for, I make every effort to write them respectfully. I did that before singing, too, but I try even harder now. I imagine, putting your name under your piece would do that for most reviewers. Wouldn’t that be a step forward.

So…

In conclusion, while it can still fee awkward to submit my name with a critical review, my experiences have been positive. Of course, whether I’ll get tenure hasn’t been decided. So it remains to be seen whether I insulted some senior author so much that it will have such drastic consequences as that person trying to hinder my further career. It seems improbable to me, though the situation appears to differ in some fields.

Putting my name to my opinions and criticism appears to me to be the way it should be: let’s have discussions in which we fight over our standpoints. But let’s keep our respect.

From here, the step to published reviews, be it with the papers, on my blog, or in some online forum, is then just a step away.

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