I recently was sent my first paper to review, which felt like (and was) a big milestone in my fledgling career. Not just something vaguely related to my interests, the paper was on something that I really probably am a bit of an expert on, so my confidence was buoyed by knowing that I really was a suitable reviewer, and that I would know what I was talking about and looking for. So that was the first worry out of the way.
But pretty soon, more cropped up – mostly because in my reviewer guidelines, there was an option that, having only published with Animal Behaviour so far, which enforces author anonymity, was totally new to me. I could sign my review, if I wanted to – the authors had chosen not to be anonymous.
This opened up a debate for me that I’d listened to on the sidelines as a non-participant – should peer review be double-blind? blind at all? If I’d ever chipped in before, it was assuming that when the time came, I wouldn’t feel intimidated, not knowledgeable enough, or the old schoolkid hankering just to be liked by my peers.
But in truth, faced with the option of putting my name there at the end of my review or not, I faltered even before I’d read the paper. Here’s why.
1. I’m acquainted professionally with some of the authors (though, I should stress, not nearly enough to warrant any doubt over whether it was appropriate that I review their paper), and was worried I might offend them if I found issues with their paper. I’m at the beginning of my career, and I can’t afford to piss anyone off.
2. I’m a PhD student – all the authors are way, way further along in their career. Would they be willing to listen to the critique of someone, in their view, fresh out of academic nappies? And, aren’t they likely to know more than me anyway?
3. I’d published on a similar topic, and didn’t feel that they’d referenced my results enough. This one really made me think back to all the reviews I’ve had where there have been clear hints that I should reference certain papers. And doesn’t everyone hate that reviewer??
Now of course, I realised even as I was having these thoughts that these issues didn’t matter. I know my stuff, I’m not setting out to be an asshole, and if I’m going to suggest a change, it would of course be for the good of the paper, not myself. So I knew I needn’t worry about any of these things. But these were doubts that I didn’t ever think I would have. It rattled me up quite a bit, and so I turned to Twitter for some advice (of course, not mentioning any details of the paper).
I got these stellar responses:
This was just the sort of advice I needed – and I signed the review.
Katie’s point – that she signs reviews when she thinks it’s good for the recipient to know the knowledge base the review is coming from – set my mind at ease with regards to my competence. If the authors had any doubts about my comments, they’d at least know that I knew the appropriate literature at least well enough to write the paper that I did, and could be assured that I know what I’m talking about.
Lesley and @ShoalGroup were dead on – having made the decision to sign, I was determined that my review should reflect well on, and be a credit to me (as it was going to be ACcredited to me). Resultantly I spent a good few days on it, and did a lot of re-reading to make sure all was on point.
And I thought about Christina/Jen’s advice throughout the whole process. Would I say that to their faces? If I honestly thought that the paper could be improved – then yes, I’d say it. Politely.
My decision was personal, and I’m sure lots of people would have preferred not to sign for equally valid reasons. What do you think? Do you sign your reviews? Should there be one standardised system?
As an update, in the comments you’ll see Animal Behaviour’s policy on anonymity. They do actually allow authors and reviewers to waive anonymity – something I’d missed in my previous submissions.