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Leading the blind

TedViagraResized.jpgHistorically, academic publishing has always had one aspect of its operations back-to-front, and that is the matter of who, in the reviewing process, should be anonymous.

It seems double-blindingly obvious to me that, as a matter of principle, if anyone has to be anonymous, it is those who are being judged who should be protected, and not those passing judgement.  This is why orchestral auditions place a performer behind a screen so that what they look like doesn’t render their judges selectively deaf.  Peer review, however, has traditionally been organised the other way about.  Reviewers know exactly who they are judging, yet many journals still allow them to criticise from behind a discreet veil.   

Internet trolling serves as a graphic reminder of what happens when people write un-attributably.  It is (or should be) a principle that, except where extenuating circumstances apply (such as whistle-blowing, where the weak need protection) nobody – certainly nobody in a position of influence - should ever be permitted to write anything that they are not prepared to defend before those about whom they write.  The wages of such secrecy are corruption and self-interest. 

It is possible that people are basically good; but given the chance to get away with it, they are unlikely to be basically honest.  Several of the papers I eventually published, long ago, suffered vexatious delay and sometimes needless rejection because one specialist editor proved to have a vested interest in maintaining priority, or suppressing falsification.  I quickly learned to subvert this by an emasculating ‘acknowledgement’, which shows that their Harry Potter cloak didn’t even work; but the fact that they thought they were invisible, made the process paltry, unedifying and disenchanting. 

Writing and reviewing should never provide sanctuary for the cowardly and passive-aggressive, whether they are powerful or not.  But reviewing should certainly not place stronger weapons in the hands of those who already hold them all.  For this reason I have, since first writing about this in the 1980s, advocated ‘double-blind’ reviewing - anonymity for authors.  Although poo-pooed at the time in New Scientist’s correspondence columns, double-blind reviewing has since achieved a 76% approval rating1,2 from surveyed scientists.  The leading UK science journal Nature now offers double-blind reviewing. 

Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change, who have allowed it since mid-2013, found take-up ‘lower than enthusiasm in surveys suggested’ (about 20%).  But this is no discouragement.  Change, even for the better, takes time. 

Meanwhile I look forward to your reviews, marked ‘for publication’.


[email protected] , @TedNield @geoscientistmag

Refs: 1,2: Mulligan A, Hall L & Raphael E, 2013 J Am Soc Inf Sci Technol 64, 132-161; Announcement, Nature 518 19 February 2015 p 274.