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June 20, 2019

Peer Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Posted by: Mark Johnson

As noted in my previous post, scholarly peer review has two main objectives: to help journal editors decide whether a manuscript is fit for publication and to help authors improve their manuscripts.

But in reality, peer review is a bit more complicated. OK, “a bit” is something of an understatement. Peer review can be incredibly complicated.

In this post, we will review various types of peer review—and examine some valid concerns about the process.

Single-Blind Peer Review

Peer review comes in many forms, and different journals follow different formats.

In a single-blind review, the reviewers (or referees) know whose manuscript they are reviewing, but the names of the reviewers are kept secret from the author(s).

The main benefit of a single-blind review is that it prevents authors from wielding any sort of influence over the review of their manuscript. Indeed, referees can feel free to give an honest review (even if it's somewhat negative) without worrying about repercussions from the author.

On the flip-side, many people believe that keeping reviewers names hidden is a mistake. Here are some of the top concerns surrounding the single-blind peer review format:

  • The world of scholarly publishing is highly competitive. Some might even call it ‘cut-throat’. Because referees are presumably in the same field of study as the authors whose manuscripts they are invited to review, and because these reviewers’ identities are kept hidden, a reviewer could intentionally prolong their review in order to stall the manuscript’s publication—in hopes of having their own manuscript (on a similar topic) published first.
  • In instances of road rage, people behave differently in the safety of their cars than they do face-to-face. Similarly, the anonymity of a single-blind review has been known to facilitate harsh (or borderline belligerent) reviews.
  • In a single-blind review, referees are privy to the authors’ identities. As such, the single-blind format opens up the opportunity for bias in favor of known authors from respected institutions. And bias against lesser known researchers, female scientists, and early-career researchers. There is also the potential for discrimination based on nationality and the associated institution. 

The single-blind review is the original—and most common—type of peer review.

Double-Blind Peer Review

In a double-blind peer review, the names of reviewers are hidden from the authors, just as they are in a single-blind. The difference is that in a double-blind review, the authors’ identities are also kept hidden from the reviewers.

As with a single-blind review, authors cannot sway the outcome of a double-blind review (again, since the referees are kept anonymous). What’s more, because the reviewers don't know whose manuscript they are reviewing, the potential for bias that exists in a single-blind is reduced in the double-blind format.

Unfortunately, a double-blind review has problems of its own. Here are some of the key concerns:

  • The potential for bias is not completely eliminated in a double-blind review. Why? Because reviewers can sometimes figure out who the authors are by piecing together clues. For example, they might be familiar with a certain authors style of work; the author may make reference to their own past work; or the subject matter may be a dead giveaway.
  • The potential abuse of anonymity that exists in the single-blind format (providing excessively harsh reviews; prolonging the review to gain competitive edge; etc.) exists within a double-blind format, too.
  • Keeping both the authors’ and the reviewers’ identities hidden isn’t easy. It requires extra steps and complicated logistics that are often labor-intensive and costly.

Open Peer Review

Although single-blind and double-blind are the most common types of peer reviews, a third type is gaining traction among some journals: Open reviews.

Open peer review is a broad category that is continuing to evolve, but the overarching goal is to increase transparency throughout the peer review process. In fact, open peer review is sometimes called transparent peer review.

In most cases, open peer review formats reveal the identities of both the authors and the reviewers. We won’t dive into all sub-categories of open review in this post, but here are some of the forms an open review can take:

  • Reviewers names are published alongside the article.
  • Peer review reports are published alongside the article, including any responses from the authors and/or editors. Reviewers can be either named to kept anonymous.
  • Peer review is public and interactive, allowing for discussion and comment from a community forum (with or without names revealed).
  • The manuscript is reviewed after it has been published by an Open Access journal, with reviewers and authors named.

Opening up peer review so everyone knows who is involved can help make the tone more civil. But still, there's concern that authors might retaliate against negative reviewers down the line. To further complicate the discussion, opinions about open peer review change depending upon role. In other words, a scientist may be in favor of open reviews when they are the author (so they know who the reviewers are), but opposed to open review if they are the one asked to review a paper!

Triple-Blind Peer Review

Triple-blind peer reviews are far less common that single-blind, double-blind, or even open reviews. In truth, although conversations are emerging about a triple-blind review, this type of model is rarely used.

As with a double-blind, authors don't know who the reviewers are, and reviewers don't know who the authors are. But in a triple-blind, even the journal editors don’t know who authored the paper. In theory, this approach further reduces any chance of bias toward the author.

In reality, however, the process required to keep all identities under wraps takes considerable effort and requires complex logistics, adding substantial cost to the publication process. And in the end, there's still the potential for editors and reviews to figure out who wrote the manuscript.

Hungry for more information about peer review? Next up, we’ll take a look at the history of the peer review process. And of course if you are looking for peer reviewed research articles, there's a Gadget for that!  Actually, we have a lot of Gadgets for that including the Reference Manager Gadget, the PubMed Searcher, and Altmetric score powered Trending Article Finder.  To use these and scores of other Gadgets, sign up for your free Article Galaxy Gadget Store account by clicking the link below.

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Topics: journal articles journals peer-reviewed literature publishers scientific publishing scholarly publishing peer review research articles journal editors single blind peer review double blind peer review open peer review conflict of interest