Thursday, May 16, 2019

Why I stopped signing my reviews

Since the beginning of this year, I stopped signing my peer reviews. I had systematically signed my reviews for a few years: I think I started this at the beginning of my first post-doc, back in 2015. My reasons for signing were the following: (1) Science should be about an open exchange of ideas. I have previously benefitted from signed reviews, because I could contact the reviewer with follow-up questions, which has resulted in very fruitful discussion. (2) Something ideological about open science (I don’t remember the details). (3) As an early career researcher, one is still very unknown. Signing reviews might help colleagues to associate your name with your work. As for the draw-backs, there is the often-cited concern that authors may want to take revenge if they receive a negative review, and even in the absence of any bad intentions, they may develop implicit biases against you. I weighed this disadvantage against the advantages listed above, and I decided that it’s worth the risk.

So then, why did I stop? There was a specific review that made me change my mind, because I realised that by signing reviews, one might get into all kinds of unanticipated awkward situations. I will recount this particular experience, of course, removing all details to protect the authors’ identity (which, by the way, I don’t know, but perhaps others might be able to guess with sufficient detail).

A few months ago, I was asked to review a paper about an effect, which I had not found in one of my previous studies. This study reported a significant effect. I could not find anything wrong with the methods or analyses, but the introduction was rather biased, in the sense that it cited only studies that did show this effect, and did not cite my study. I asked the authors to cite my study. I also asked them to provide a scatterplot of their data.

The next version of this manuscript that I received included the scatterplot, as I’d asked, and a citation of my study. Except, my study was cited in the following context (of course, fully paraphrased): “The effect was found in a previous study (citation). Schmalz et al. did not find the effect, but their study sucks.” At the same time, I noticed something very strange about the scatterplot. After asking several stats-savvy colleagues to verify that this strange thing was, indeed, very strange, I wrote in my review that I don’t believe the results, because the authors must have made a coding error during data processing.

I really did not like sending this review, because I was afraid that it would look (both to the editor and to the authors) like I had picked out a reason to dismiss the study because they had criticised my paper. However, I had signed my previous review, and whether or not I would sign during this round, it would be clear to the authors that it was me.

In general, I still think that signing reviews has a lot of advantages. Whether the disadvantages outweigh the benefits depends on each reviewer’s preference. For myself, the additional drawback that there may be unexpected awkward situations that one really doesn’t want to get into as an early career researcher tipped the balance, but it’s still a close call.

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