Anonymity is the Cure? Nature Nanotech's Double Blind Peer Review / by James Wade

The journal Nature Nanotechnology is adding double-blind peer review as an option for new submissions. The intent is to increase objectivity, but they are ignoring a much better solution: transparency.

Damn review number three! That's the refrain commonly uttered by scientists, reflecting frustrations with the peer review process. Authors often lament that the anonymous reviewer must have a vendetta against them, and he or she is hellbent on ruining competitors' careers. This is largely hyperbole, but the perception of unfairness is common. To fix the issue, the editors at Nature Nanotechnology recently announced a change to the peer review process: make it double blind. The editorial announcing the policy change cites evidence of bias against women and against less prominent labs. I agree with the sentiment. The scientific community should seek to eliminate these biases. After all, the goal is to effectively communicate scientific discoveries regardless of their origin. But, is this the best way to move forward?

There is no formal training in reviewing papers in most graduate programs, creating enormous variety in quality and composition of the reviews. Graduate students are often called to review papers by their advisors, which helps PIs reduce their work load and provides an opportunity for students to experience the peer review process. It is vital, however, that advisors guide students through this process in the beginning. A recent editorial in Analytical Chemistry went into detail about crafting manuscript reviews, specifically citing the lack of consistency and training resulting in common dissatisfaction with peer reviews. 

One issue is that some among us equate writing a review as a directive to find and list all of the mistakes in the paper. Perhaps this is to be expected after years of getting comments back from instructors pointing out our mistakes and omissions. While it is important to note any problems, it is just as important to describe what is significant and novel in a manuscript. Not surprisingly, I have found that individuals who submit reviews without a single positive comment are often the ones that complain when they receive a similarly negative review.

In other words, it is no wonder that we are unhappy with reviews because most of us are writing reviews we would hate to receive.  The goal, contrary to the approach of many, is not to discover reasons to not publish the paper. The goal is to assess the worth of the research and to identify where (and if) the researchers should expand the paper to create a more compelling scientific narrative. Papers do not have to transform a field to be worthy of publication, and reviewers must remember that.

The best method to improve the peer review process - more so than training - is to increase openness and transparency. Why not allow the public to view the peer review process with identities attached to all involved? Hiding the reviews makes no sense in this digital age. If peer reviews are publicly available, then it becomes much easier to identify prejudice and unfair practice. We are called as members of the scientific community to participate in its cultivation on a scale much larger than our individual labs, and we should not be ashamed or hesitant to reveal our praise and criticism of papers. The transparency will also discourage reviewers from being unnecessarily harsh or demeaning or from tacitly approving unworthy science of our friends. In general, we tend to be better actors when we know someone is watching.

Scientists should not fear the peer review process, and we must not hide it. Attaching our identities to reviews should not hinder our willingness to comment genuinely, positive or negative. Peer review is the bedrock of scientific integrity. If we want reliable science, then we must position ourselves to ensure honesty and fairness in the ways our results are disseminated. Transparency is the way to do that, and transparency is the way forward.