A few months ago, Stephen Heard wrote a blog post that prompted us to have a brief twitter discussion on whether we sign our reviews. Steve tends to sign his reviews, and I tend not to, but neither of us felt completely sure that our approach was the right one. So, we decided that it would be fun for us to both write posts about our views on signing (or not signing) reviews. In the interim, I accepted a review request where I decided, before opening the paper, that I would sign the review to see whether that changed how I did the review. So, in this post I will discuss why I have generally not signed my name to reviews, how it felt to do a review where I signed my name, and what I plan on doing in the future.
First, here’s a link to Steve’s post. It’s great and, since I read it before working on my post, mine is partially a response to it.
I agree with Steve that I don’t think signing reviews tends to make them “better”. And, going further, I think you can make an argument that not signing reviews makes them better. To me, the most important reason for reviewers not to sign their reviews is so that they can be critical without worrying about retribution. I don’t want people who are reviewing my papers to be excessively harsh, but I also don’t want them not to point out an error or concern because they are worried about upsetting me. And, based on my experience as an associate editor (where I sign all my recommendation letters), I know that it can be hard to ignore that voice that is saying, “Boy, this is not going to make them happy”. I don’t think that voice has ever changed what I recommended, but it was a distraction and would have been even more of one if I were at an earlier career stage.
I did wonder, though, if having been an AE for several years would make me feel differently about signing a regular review, since I now have a lot of practice with signing things, even when I know it won’t be the outcome the author hoped for. So, as I said above, I recently accepted a review where I decided as soon as I accepted it that I was going to sign the review. I ended up really enjoying the manuscript and, while I had some suggestions for things to address, it seemed clear to me that the work was well done and that it was a good fit for the journal.
So, I was a little surprised that, when it came time to submit the review, I waffled for a bit about whether to go through with signing it. The biggest thing I was thinking was that it felt pointless – I didn’t see what benefit would come from signing it, so I wasn’t sure why I should change from my default of not signing it. I also kept thinking of what I had learned in grad school: that one should always sign reviews or never sign reviews. The idea behind this is that, if you sometimes sign reviews and sometimes don’t, that quickly leads to you signing only the positive ones, inviting a quid pro quo system. I’m not really sure how likely that is (is there data on this? I’d love to know), but it does seem plausible to me. (Note: after writing this post, I was reminded of this older post by Terry McGlynn where, among other reasons, he notes the potential for tit-for-tat as a reason not to sign reviews.)
Given that advice, I decided early on to not sign reviews, feeling like it would let me be more critical (while still being constructive) – but also, if I am being honest with myself, because reviewing has always brought out my imposter syndrome and anonymity helped with that. But, like Steve, I have not always gone with my default approach. When I do sign, it’s usually because I thought I needed to identify myself to help explain a question, suggestion, or critique. But that has been rare.
Now that I’ve done this little trial of signing a review, I plan on going back to my default approach of not signing reviews. I don’t think there’s much to be gained from signing them – as Steve suggests, there is some potential value to being able to contact the reviewer to ask a question but this is relatively rare (I think I’ve done this once in my career) – and I think there is something to lose. Steve wrote:
Occasionally, I remain anonymous precisely because I wouldn’t be comfortable saying something to an author’s face. But: this is not because I’m worried that in saying it, I’m behaving badly. Instead, it’s because I’m worried about an author behaving badly in response – whether active retaliation or just an unconscious bias against me when my own work is up for review. I think the former is very rare; but the latter probably isn’t. We all remember when our work is criticized; and it’s only human to let those memories sway your future judgement even if you’re intellectually resolved that it shouldn’t***. My occasional anonymity lets me be as critical as I think is needed. I still try to phrase that criticism as constructively as I can, of course, and most reviewers do the same.
This is an excellent summary of how I feel except that, unlike Steve, I have come to the conclusion that I should default to not signing my reviews. I find it very interesting that we seem to be pretty much in agreement about the pros and cons of signing reviews, yet have opposite defaults when it comes to whether we sign our reviews!
there seems to be little benefit to my signing. That leaves only the costs. I’ve figured this out, but I still (almost always) sign. I guess I have a choice: I can think of myself as foolish, for sticking with a practice that cost-benefit analysis can’t support; or I can think of myself as selflessly tilting at a worthwhile windmill. You can probably guess which way I lean.
I think my default position can similarly be framed positively or negatively. You could argue that I’m just being pragmatic – there are some clear potential downsides, and few upsides to signing reviews, so why bother? – or you could argue that I’m a wimp who lacks the courage of my convictions. I’m not sure which way I lean.
I’m disagreeing here, I think, with Jeremy Fox over at Dynamic Ecology, who thinks we needn’t worry about “disagreeing publicly with Dr. Famous”. I’d like very much to agree with him, but can’t quite.
I guess this means I’m also disagreeing with Jeremy. Sorry, Jeremy!