Should authors be told who their reviewers are?
The goal of any change in the peer review system must be to improve the quality of review, where quality is determined by two distinct functions: filtering manuscripts for publication in a given journal; and making constructive suggestions on how the manuscript or study could be improved. Would open review (in which reviewers sign their reviews) accomplish this goal? I have experienced several cases of open review, intentional and unintentional, with mixed results.
The main disadvantage of open review is the likely accumulation of ‘enemies’ who may later try to torpedo one’s own manuscripts or grant applications. And this occurs, it seems, regardless of the outcome of peer review. One author, for example, expressed his extreme displeasure at my review of his manuscript, despite its being eventually accepted for publication (with my support). I had made one error in around ten pages of critique. That authors ought to be better informed on the subject they have recently been studying in depth than reviewers evidently was not obvious to this author.
On the other hand, anonymous review does not always stop authors harbouring resentment if their paper is rejected. In a small field, there may be only a handful of genuine experts who have sufficient experience with the techniques, pitfalls and potential artefacts of the system, and authors are often likely to know who the reviewer is. Even if it is not obvious, most authors try to guess the identity of their reviewers from their comments or recommendations. For example, one author angrily accused me of rejecting a manuscript that I had not in fact reviewed. The author assumed it was me because the offending reviewer had recommended citing several of my papers.
But I do think that there are several advantages to an open peer-review system. First, reviewers would be more tactful and constructive. I admit that I have used sarcasm when reviewing studies that seem to be thrown together haphazardly. Sometimes I feel that I put more thought into my review than the authors have in designing the study and writing the manuscript.
Second, reviewers with a vested interest in suppressing the publication of a manuscript could be more easily unmasked by authors. Although manuscripts are rarely reviewed by a single reviewer, anonymous review does offer unscrupulous reviewers more opportunities for blocking publication without repercussion.
Third, a completely open review system would have reviewers’ names published in a footnote to each paper to further encourage reviewers to do a thorough job. When bad science is published, the negligence of reviewers can be as aggravating as the incompetence of authors.
Regardless of the type of peer review used, there is a clear need for an editor to mediate the exchange and assume responsibility for the final decision. Reviewers can give their expert opinion, which might be honest, tainted by emotion, or even an overt attempt to suppress the manuscript. The authors can rebut these arguments. But it is the editors who must determine whether the reviewer has noble motives.
Although I accept that open peer review can provide value, I doubt it can be implemented in full in our modern competitive world. A half-way house would be more realistic, in which reviewers make open constructive suggestions for revision or additional work only after the manuscript is provisionally accepted for publication. This is similar to the member/editor system used by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The member reviewing a manuscript is identified to the authors only if and when the paper is accepted for publication. For rejected manuscripts, blind review allows the reviewers to remain hidden in anonymity and the editors to hide behind the reviewers’ judgment in their decision to reject. Maybe this is for the best. Publishing reviewers’ names alongside accepted papers still seems worthwhile. The responsibility for publication is then shared among the authors, the journal and the reviewers.
Tom DeCoursey is a professor of molecular biophysics and physiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He has studied ion channels since the late 1970s and is particularly interested in voltage-gated proton channels.