In defense of anonymous peer review

In a recent blog post, Mick Watson argued that anonymous peer review is bad for science. The post makes a number of insightful and valid points. However, the one point I cannot agree with is that junior scientists don’t need anonymity so they can freely speak their mind without fear of retaliation. Mick Watson argues that retaliation should be a non-issue, and that in the cases where it is not we just have to make it so. Frankly, I think this is simplistic black-and-white thinking. There are so many ways in which a senior person can make a junior person’s life more difficult; I would always recommend my graduate students and postdocs that they review anonymously unless they can write a very positive review.

A senior person can retaliate against a junior person in a million subtle ways, and all of them are entirely ethical unless they are done in bad faith. In fact, they are the exact same behaviors we engage in all the time to separate stronger science/scientists from weaker science/scientists. Let me just list a few examples:

  • I don’t have to prominently cite Junior Person’s work in all of my papers if my papers don’t build directly on top of Junior Person’s work.
  • When I give invited lectures, I don’t have to mention Junior Person’s work.
  • I don’t have to invite Junior Person to give a Departmental Seminar at my institution.
  • I am free to rank Junior Person’s grant as “very good” rather than “excellent.”
  • If I’m on a grant panel and my colleagues are tearing apart Junior Person’s grant, I don’t have to speak up. I’m allowed to have no strong opinion.
  • I don’t have to invite Junior Person to give a keynote lecture at the conference I’m organizing. In particular, if Junior Person is a man, I can always say “we needed more women speakers.”
  • If Junior Person comes up for tenure, I don’t have to write a letter. I can claim I’m busy. Or, if I accept the assignment, I can weaken my statements of support, e.g., by saying “I think Junior Person would get tenure at my institution” instead of saying “Without doubt Junior Person would get tenure at my institution.”
  • If I’m handling one of Junior Person’s papers as Associate Editor, I can invite reviewers who I suspect are going to be critical of Junior Person’s work.
  • If I’m handling one of Junior Person’s papers as Section Editor, I can place little seeds of doubt in the mind of my Associate Editor, e.g. by forwarding the paper with a note that says “I’m not entirely sure this fits into the scope of Journal of Amazing Results. Feel free to reject without review if you have doubts yourself.”
  • When I’m reviewing a paper by somebody else, I don’t have to tell the authors that they should cite Junior Person’s work.
  • When I’m reviewing Junior Person’s paper, I can place little seeds of doubt in the handling editor’s mind, e.g. by placing the following in the confidential comments to the editor: “There’s nothing technically wrong with this work, but I don’t quite see it meeting the standards of Journal of Amazing Results.
  • When I speak informally with colleagues, I don’t have to mention how amazing Junior Person’s work is. In fact, I don’t have to mention Junior Person at all.

And of course, I can do the opposite of all these behaviors if I really want to promote a junior scientist. In fact, I strongly suspect that these kinds of behaviors (subtle promotion or demotion of individuals) are at the heart of observed differences in recognition of male vs. female scientists, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, it suffices to emphasize that all of these behaviors are entirely reasonable, ethical, and even desired if they are driven by an objective assessment of the quality of one person’s science over another’s, and not by personal biases, preferences, or desire for revenge.

Mick Watson argues that the scientific community should expel retaliating scientists. This suggestion sounds good in theory, but in practice it won’t work for any but the most egregious cases. And importantly, expelling retaliating scientists must not turn into a witch hunt. If I have to be concerned that any time I rank a grant proposal as “very good” or even just “good” somebody is going to accuse me of retaliation then I might as well stop reviewing grants or papers altogether.

Mind you, I’m strongly in favor of open peer review, where the entire review history is routinely published alongside the paper. It adds a lot of transparency to the process. And I think (though I have no data) that people will generally write more polite and factual reviews if they know that their reviews will become public eventually. In the end, though, science—like anything else in life—is always going to be somewhat unfair, open to manipulation, and subject to personal biases and opinion. As a minor protection against these mechanisms, in particular for junior people and women, scientists should be allowed to give anonymous feedback if they so choose.