Really Blind Review

The comments following the post on referee etiquette on the Leiter Report blog are worth reading.

One theme in particular is worth reflecting on. Would the process of double blind review – referees don’t know the author; authors don’t know their referees – be improved by editors not knowing whose papers had been submitted? Either by manuscript handling software, or by people acting as journal managers or administrators, it would be possible to make that stage of the process anonymous.

The positive reason that it would take away any bias editors might have in the process – presumably things like picking perceived soft or hard referees, how they handle conflicting reports, what decision they make, what they ask of the authors, etc.

But there are downsides as well.

– In selecting referees we avoid author’s colleagues, research collaborators, known friends, etc. This is much harder if the author is not known and these names are entered into a machine. I wonder how many times, working blind, we would pick the author of a paper to review their own work? A person doing the role of administrator could catch some – such as colleagues – but by no means all of the referees we might chose not to use if we knew author identity. There is an lot of editor knowledge that would be lost this way.

– Authors would then not be able to have any contact directly with the editor. Initial queries about potential papers, suitability, encouraging people at conferences to send their work to the journal, etc. – all would need to be prohibited.

– Just as referees can sometimes guess author identies, so too would editors. This can happen simply by knowing the field, attending conferences, etc., but the process of finding referees would exacerbate it. I might remember hearing a paper at a conference and think that person would be a good referee. A bit of online searching later I might put a name to that memory. But wouldn’t I likely stumble upon the author? If authors genuinely made their papers anonymous – a large number still don’t – what chance I would realise their identity simply because their own work was not cited? All these are true of referees too, but I think the average editor has a much better sense of these things than the average referee.

– With people early career I tend to show what might be called a generosity of process, not outcome. In other words, papers need to meet the same standard to get accepted, regardless of career stage, but I might be more forgiving of some things up until decision with someone who is learning the system. So I might suggest that authors do a few things to the paper before review, or suggest that they rework it more throughly before second-round review after a revise and resubmit decision. That would be very difficult without knowing the author identity. Similarly with issues over language competency.

There may be other problems too. But the idea seems to rest on the assumption that editors carry biases. I’m sure we do, but at Society and Space we work quite hard to try to minimise their impact. There are four co-editors and an editor – we work collectively and so I’d hope that would highlight and/or stop any unfairness or unreasonable generosity. We each have a policy of keeping out of decisions on colleagues, close friends or students (current or ex-) and leaving it to others in the team.

I also worry that it would take away from the role of editor. With the volume of submissions it can be hard to give each paper a personalised touch as it goes through review, but I think we try. Take away the author identity and it becomes just another piece of paper. Editors should edit, not just manage, a journal and I think this idea would reduce that ideal still further.

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1 Response to Really Blind Review

  1. Pingback: Procedures in search of content | Progressive Geographies

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