Why Anonymous Review Makes Academic Publishing Better

01/09/2020

It has become a critical part of academic and commercial publishing.

Anonymous peer review is essentially the gold standard for publishers today. But how does it work?

To be clear, there are two different kinds of anonymous review. One in which only the author’s identity is hidden from the reviewer and another in which both the author and reviewer are unknown to each other.

In the scientific community, it has become the bedrock for validating important discoveries. Anonymous review infuses democracy and trust into the research process. Researchers rely on peer review to ensure that scientific publications are valid and valuable to readers, and that articles chosen for publication aren’t influenced by the author’s name or standing.

In commercial publishing, anonymous review brings fairness to what can sometimes feel like a bit of black box for authors.

Still, anonymous peer review isn’t perfect.

Reviews can be time-consuming. For many publishers, the review process stretches on for weeks or even months. Multiple handoffs to different reviewers can create workflow nightmares. Reviewers can sometimes stifle innovative research (especially when it contradicts their own work) and rely too heavily on the prestige of institutions. Adding the extra step of anonymous review (sometimes referred to as blind review) can leave room for delays and mistakes if not implemented correctly.

All that said, anonymous peer view remains the uncontested heavyweight champion of the publishing process.

Let’s take a look at why this is the case and explore how publishers are implementing anonymous review to produce the best possible publications for readers.

Why anonymous peer review remains an effective tool for publishers

Why anonymous peer review remains an effective tool for publishers

The question isn’t whether anonymous review remain a part of the publishing process.

Modern debates about the role of anonymous review center on how to balance quality and transparency within this widely-accepted practice.

In its current form, the “anonymous” part is central to the quality that the review process produces. It allows for constructive criticism and helps to protect those being reviewed against certain forms of bias.

At the same time, you have scientists like Kay Tye, a professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences calling for signed reviews (in which the reviewer’s identity is revealed) because they “promote transparency, accountability, and fairness.” Some reviewers have admitted that the prospect of signing their own name at the end of a review makes them more careful about what they write.

But is this the only way to ensure transparency and accountability in such a process?

One compelling argument is that the current issues facing the anonymous peer review process can’t be fixed by a signature at the end of a review. In fact, it might actually lead to a loss of a lot of good feedback.

The numbers speak for themselves.

A study from the Journal of General Internal Medicine found out that the central qualities for good peer reviewers for that particular journal were:

  • Being under the age of 40
  • Coming from strong academic institutions
  • Being well known to the editors
  • Not knowing the identity of the manuscript’s author(s)

When these conditions were met, the probability that the reviewer would produce a good review was 87%. On the other hand, a reviewer without any of these characteristics had a 7% probability of producing a good review.

That’s a big difference in quality. Such data also suggest that simply slapping a signature on a review isn’t a solve for what may ail anonymous peer review. There are clearly other factors at play.

Let’s dive into the details of how publishers can effectively implement anonymous peer review in their publishing processes.

How to effectively implement anonymous review as a publisher

How to effectively implement anonymous review as a publisher

So how can publishers optimize anonymous peer review as part of their publishing process?

The first step is clarifying why it’s even important for them to do so. For publishers looking to keep their reviewers accountable for producing the best possible reviews, eliminating preferential treatment and bias within the review process, and boosting the quality of publications broadly, anonymous review is a powerful means for those ends.

The question remains: Tactically speaking, how might publishers get the most of anonymous review as part of their publishing process?

Let’s dig in and answer these important questions.

Insist on accountability

Anonymous peer review can be an engine for accountability, on all sides.

Those opposed to anonymous peer review argue that anonymity might lead to sloppy reviews.

That’s where your editors play a crucial role in the review process.

Even in a double-masked peer review, the editors always know the parties involved. They will know when someone is being unreasonable or outright nasty. Repeated sloppy or nonconstructive reviews can be easily be noticed in this context. The outcome of reviews can impact the reviewer’s career and their relationships with peers.

While unhelpful comments can be prevented by an editor, their primary job is not to sort through negative commentary. Editors should be empowered to support reviewers and submitters in the drive towards quality publications. Anonymous reviews ensure that they don’t have to play moderators in addition to being editors.

A submission management software with built-in anonymous review workflows can help editors keep reviewers accountable for the best possible reviews while helping to assure quality in the review process.

With the right platform, each publisher can customize their own unique review process—all while keeping things anonymous for submitters and reviewers.

End preferential treatment

With anonymous review, the days of trading favors for good reviews are over.

While it’s often difficult to uncover such unfairness in the review process, an experiment done by Nature journals shed some light on how anonymous review (in this case double-masked) can help discourage such treatment. In the study, only 25% of papers under full anonymous review were accepted, versus 44% for papers that went the partially-anonymous route.

End preferential treatment

You read that right, the chances of acceptance nearly doubled when the author was revealed to the reviewer.

The broader implication here is that when the reviewer knows the identity of the author, things change, and not always for the better. In short, implicit bias is allowed to creep in when publishers forgo anonymous review.

Publishers looking to end preferential treatment among reviewers can use anonymous review to achieve that goal while boosting the overall quality of publications.

Remove bias

Anonymous reviews promote equity in publishing.

When reviewers are unaware of an author’s identity, matters like gender, skin color, country of origin and other factors are less likely to affect the final review and reduce the overall quality of publications.

Does anonymous review rout out all discrimination in the review process? Certainly not.

Can anonymous review make the process significantly fairer? Most definitely, yes.

Researchers who might be a target for racism know this. When given a choice, they pick anonymous reviews. When the Nature journals gave authors the option to choose the type of peer review for their manuscript, 32% of Indian authors and 22% of Chinese authors opted for double-blind review, compared with only 8% of authors from France and 7% from the United States.

The gender gap is another big problem in the world of publishing.

Women are clearly underrepresented in academic publishing. For example, at its worst, only 20.4% of female researchers get published in Japan. At best, 45% in Argentina. There is a long and increasingly well-documented history discontent among female authors. It can be found in online forums, anonymous stories, and even humorous Twitter accounts.

The picture that forms is one of underrepresentation and frustration.

When publishers put anonymous review to smart use within their publishing process, they can boost publication quality while creating a fairer, more just publishing industry.

Focus on quality

Modern publishers are in a race against time and market forces to produce quality publications for readers.

If they don’t accomplish this key goal, they perish. It’s really that simple.

So how does anonymous peer review help publishers reach higher heights with what they produce for hungry audiences?

From preventing mistakes within publications and confirming observations made by authors within their works to ensuring concision in writing and enhancing explanations for readers, anonymous peer review brings innumerable benefits to the publication process.

The essential point here is that the anonymous nature of peer review is superior to other forms of review in the ways that it focuses authors, editors, and reviewers on publication quality rather than other frankly distracting and less useful priorities in the publication process.

If there’s a better way to drive improvements in pre-published works, the publishing community just hasn’t found it yet.

Hence all the (well-deserved) praise for anonymous peer review.

Allow for innovation

So how do publishers address the common complaint that peer review stifles innovation?

The old refrain is that peer reviewers are grounded in established practices and are reviewing works with that in mind, so works that go against established practice face a tougher road. While anonymous review can’t entirely eliminate that bias against innovation, it can reduce it by addressing related biases that emerge when reviewers and authors are known to one another.

There’s no question it’s a big challenge.

This goes back to the questions of bias and preferential treatment when reviews are not anonymous.

Well-known researchers can often get a better review of their latest papers because of their previous work. For example, editors from Nature journals have reported that open peer reviews often contained references to the past achievement of the researchers, even though it did nothing to add to the value of the current manuscript.

This dynamic makes it hard for younger researchers to write critically constructive reviews for senior members of their field. They fear retribution that can result in loss of future grants, exclusion from certain journals, and other career-damaging consequences.

Feedback from well-known researchers isn’t always a good thing either. Sometimes changes are implemented to a manuscript simply because it was suggested by a senior member of the community. This can, at times, seriously hurt the quality of the research.

Tactically speaking, publishers leveraging anonymous peer review are already scoring points for innovation in the publication process. That’s step one because it tackles the concerns mentioned above.

For publishers seeking a more proactive approach, carving out specific slots (some might call them quotas) within the publishing portfolio for experimental manuscripts can go a long way towards encouraging innovation within the publishing process as well. Such an approach also works well when it comes to gender, race, and other identity groups if your concern is that anonymous review could lead to a lack of diversity in your eventual talent pool.

Effective anonymous review powered by a modern platform

Ensuring greater accountability, less bias, and higher quality publications within your publishing process is a tall order.

Anonymous peer review is just one piece of that puzzle.

A big part of using anonymous review to achieve those goals involves deploying modern submission management software to harness those publishing workflows. From improving communication and workflows among multiple stakeholders to serving as an integrated platform for equal treatment of submitters, submission management software makes anonymous review much easier.

You’ve got a lot of hands involved in the process and keeping everything centralized in one, unified system is key. Automating key tasks within those workflows will save your team time.

Give all the players in your anonymous review process the best possible tools to produce the highest quality publications.

Paul Perry
Paul Perry

Paul Perry is a writer and former educator with significant experience in nonprofit management. He has a soft spot for grant-seekers striving to make the world a better, more just place.