Last year, I started to experiment with signing my reports for peer review of manuscripts, inspired by other people on twitter (@kaymtye, @AndrewPlested who in turn were inspired by Leslie Voshall). This year, the experiment is a bit different. I will only review for journals that allow non-anonymous peer-review.
That was the question raised by an editor. At first the editor did not want me to sign my review, since that was the default. However, after some back-and-forth over email, permission was granted. My main argument to sign was that I think it makes me a better reviewer (that’s right “I think”, these things are difficult to quantify, you know), since I will be
less sloppy more precise, more constructive and more realistic in terms of requesting new experiments. Another advantage is that the authors have a better idea of who they are dealing with. They can better assess the expertise of the referee and respond accordingly. Recently, I received non-anonymous reviews for a submitted manuscript for the first time. This was a very positive experience and it strengthens my opinion that signed reviews make the peer review process more human.
I realize that I can sign my reviews and reveal my identity because I am privileged. I have a permanent position at a well-regarded university in a research group with a solid track record. However, being privileged should not stop me. And I think that the privileged have an important role in improving the peer review system. Signed peer reviews are not necessarily a magic bullet, but a good start would be to move away from the anonymous review as a standard. Journals that allow signed reviews should make that clear to reviewers during the peer review process.
The debate around signed reviews is not new. Similar issues with disclosing one’s identity apply to commenting on preprints. Signing reviews or other type of comments is not without risk for early stage career researchers or other researchers in vulnerable positions. We have discussed this in our preprint journal club and in my opinion early stage career researchers (PhD candidates, post-docs) should not sign public comments by default. If they want to disclose their identity, I’d recommend to directly contact the authors with their feedback by email.
One way to protect young researchers would be to co-review and co-sign with a senior scientist. Another opportunity is the cross-commenting on peer review reports that several journals are implementing. One could imagine that multiple reviewers draft a single review report and sign this together. This generates a review report with an author list, which has the advantage that the comments cannot be traced back to a single person. The downside is that such a collaborative review may require substantially more effort and time.
As said in the intro, signing peer review reports is an experiment. So far, I am pleased with the results and I will continue. There may, however, be some unwanted side-effects that will stop my experiment. In the meantime, I hope that reviewers realize that signing review reports is often an option and that they give it some serious thoughts.