19

In my field (chemistry), review is always done in a single blind process, i.e. the author does not know who the referees were, but the referees do know who the authors are. In ten years, I have never seen a referee breaching this anonymity, e.g. by signing their review, unless they got prior approval by the editor (in order to continue discuss things further with the authors, once the manuscript was accepted for publication).

So, it seemed logical to assume that in single blind peer-review, the reviewer should not disclose his identity without the editor's consent. Yet, some people have told me (here and there; also IRL a friend from human sciences) that they have seen people sign their reviews, or write emails to them after the review but before the paper is published.

So, in single-blind peer-review, can you reveal your identity without the editor's consent? Does it depends on the customs of each field, or is there a hard rule? (in which case, the few anecdotes I heard were outliers)

15

I would think that it's a bad idea to open the possibility of referees communicating with authors, since this opens the possibility of authors' influencing referees, compromising the process. Of course, this is not to say that there aren't some positive possibilities, but the conflict-of-interest criterion seems to me in this case to be clearly manifest.

That is, it should be understood, implicitly or explicitly, that referees will remain anonymous "in perpetuity", so that there is no hint or possibility that authors could communicate with them or influence them. E.g., either overt or subtle invitations from authors to a referee to communicate (and get some credit for the paper, maybe co-authorship, etc., as discussed around here some time back...) would be understood in advance to fail absolutely.

Thus, editors who discover referees willing to engage in such would probably regretfully stop asking them to referee, since if such activity became known it would seriously damage the reputation of the journal... if only in principle, but "principle" would seem to be the point...

  • 4
    Thus, editors who discover referees willing to engage in such would probably regretfully stop asking them to referee - aha ! :) – Suresh Nov 25 '13 at 19:44
  • @Suresh, Ha! "Regretfully", because it's not so easy to find referees. But, srsly, if I were to take the trouble to be "An Editor", I'd be dis-serving myself and others by giving people a reason to wonder about the legitimacy of the review process, eh? – paul garrett Nov 25 '13 at 19:52
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    referees will remain anonymous "in perpetuity" ... I think that this is practical until the paper's been published, but I don't think it's a convention that you're supposed to leave it a secret "forever and ever". I've told people "I reviewed your paper" before and had people say the same to me. – Irwin Nov 25 '13 at 23:42
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    @Irwin, I know that reality may not conform to either the pluses or minuses of the ideal, but I think that anticipation of disclosure even after acceptance could easily be viewed as a potentially fatal compromise of the system. Of course, this is relevant only under the assumption that anyone's trying to "game" the system, but presumably some weak form of that assumption is what motivates single-blind or double-blind review in the first place. – paul garrett Nov 26 '13 at 0:49
9

In my opinion, informing anyone that you was their referee is a serious betrayal of the system. The fact that the reviews are (at least) single-blind by default has a good reason, which is that you don't feel unsafe writing a very negative review to a paper if it deserves it. As such, it works only if it's standard that this information stays secret.

Imagine a situation when 15 people vote for something in secret vote, but vast majority of them plan to reveal publically their vote. It stresses the minority to state their opinion as they feel it. And the uttermost reason for reviews is that reviewers state their opinion as they feel it.

There are some exceptions when it is acceptable, like:

  • When you reject to review the paper for whatever reason, you can of course tell them that you saw the paper.

  • Another exception is when the paper is really excellent and contains some breaking results (so that it is really really far from giving a negative review), but even then I would be quite careful.

AFAIK, in some countries, even a randomly-chosen portion of PhD theses get single-blind reviewed after they are published, to ensure that the thesis oponents take it more seriously in general.

The fact that others do it doesn't mean that it's correct.

  • Please notice that when you down-vote my answer with no further comments, I ignore that down-vote. Maybe if you commented why you down-voted the answer, I could make a better answer next time. Thanks. – yo' Dec 1 '13 at 16:52
  • "a good reason [...] is that you don't feel unsafe writing a very negative review to a paper if it deserves it." Why would you feel unsafe? Will the author come after you with a bazooka if you point out factual mistakes in their paper? Just imagine what that would do to their scientific reputation. Nah, I don't think it's likely they'll do it. (And why do you want to know who downvoted your answer? Do you have a bazooka hidden nearby? Is that what you do?) – rgrig Feb 13 '16 at 15:30
  • @rgrig Well, you don't imply that asking for commenting a downvote here is similar to asking to know who reviewed my paper, do you? – yo' Feb 13 '16 at 16:32
  • no, it's not similar at all – rgrig Feb 15 '16 at 11:52
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    I do also agree with this answer... not that people will "come after you" in an obvious way: these are not stupid people. But (in my experience) even smart people can develop (irrational?) grudges, and be subliminally influenced, and come up with rationalizations, ... Better to avoid that. – paul garrett Feb 2 '17 at 21:49
7

It is overwhelmingly clear from the answers at https://mathoverflow.net/questions/98308/when-if-ever-disclose-your-identity-as-a-reviewer that in the mathematical research community it is perfectly acceptable to sign one's reviews. I know people who do so, and their purpose in doing so is to ensure that they keep the tone and content of their reviews such that they are not embarrassed to be acknowledged as the author of the review. I think that other mathematicians largely consider this a courageous and responsible action. Some may think it is unwise, but I don't know of any who think it is unethical.

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    It is interesting that you say so as the accepted answer that expresses the opposite point of view was also given by a mathematician. – MaoWao Feb 2 '17 at 13:27
  • @MaoWao I agree! But check the Mathoverflow link and you will see a much larger number of upvotes there for what I am saying. Of course, this is not a scientifically valid survey. – David Ketcheson Feb 2 '17 at 16:05
6

You can sign peer reviews. It's not common, but also not unheard of. (I don't think it's really possible to do so without the editor's consent since all the reviews go through them, not directly to the authors. If the editor truly found it unacceptable, I believe they would have the option of redacting the review or refusing to accept the review until it was amended.)

A rising sentiment in my field (biological sciences) is that anonymity in peer-review is increasingly abused to make disingenuous, unreasonable, or inflammatory comments without having to stand by them, or to get away with sloppy or ignorant reviews. Signing reviews is seen as a step towards greater transparency. This pair of blog posts by Jeremy Yoder (1, 2) has some further pros and cons from people who sign or don't sign their reviews, respectively.

Personally I think open reviews, where they're actually published along with the manuscript, are a more effective remedy. But that's a separate discussion, probably.

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