16 October 2009

Should we give up anonymous reviewing?

Has anonymity ever elevated the level of discourse?

A recent blog post describes the toxic effect of anonymous online chatter on a conference:

I felt sorry for the conference organizers, who were obviously reading the BackNoise chatter. They started out the day with enthusiasm, energy and confidence. They visibly sagged as the day wore on, making almost apologetic comments to the audience in between speakers.

It reminded me of famed British anatomist Richard Owen.

Richard Owen with Owen was, by all accounts, a real piece of work. He was undeniably brilliant, tutor to royalty, critical in establishing institutions like the British Museum, but he was also just plain nasty.

Owen wrote a review of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin that proves that snarkiness was invented long before the 20th century. Most famously, Owen talked about his own work but feigned objectivity by writing about himself in the third person:

In his last published work Professor Owen does not hesitate to state ‘that perhaps the most important and significant result of pal├Žontological research has been the establishment of the axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things.’

Indeed, Owen’s review has a lot of the sort of backchannel nastiness that prompted Stacy Williams to write the post that started us off. Owen was able to do this because at the time, book reviews were published anonymously, for reasons that sound fine in theory: “The reviewer has to feel absolutely free to say anything.” Eventually, the practice of anonymous scientific book reviews faded for reasons that I haven’t been able to trace.

To this day, however, review of technical papers are almost always anonymous to the authors of the article being reviewed. Even journals that argue that they are trying to do science publishing in a new way, like the PLoS family of journals, keep peer review anonymous. The argument is the same as used to be used for book reviews: “The reviewer has to feel absolutely free to say anything.” Stories like Owen’s review and the effect of anonymous and pseudonymous writing on the internet suggests anonymity is more likely to breed invective than constructive criticism.

Arguments for keeping reviews anonymous include that a slighted author may take some sort of revenge against a negative reviewer. Is there anyone in a research field who is so powerful that they can completely prevent a researcher from publishing in all journals and prevent someone from getting any funding?

The scientific community is no longer a clique of wealthy Victorian gentlemen publishing in a scarce number of journals, where angering the wrong people could block you from publication. If privacy is dead, maybe anonymity should join it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes.

Nearly everything I hate about anonymous peer review can be summarised by the phrase "vested interest". Let's please do away with this outmoded and frankly cowardly system.