Who owns your review?
I get a lot of requests from journal editors to review manuscripts. As an editor at BMC Bioinformatics I frequently ask others to review papers. Sometimes I agree to review papers, especially when I have time for it and when the manuscript is in an area where I have some expertise. Sometimes the paper I end up reviewing is simply high quality science, other times the research is good but the writeup could use some work, and unfortunately a few papers that have crossed my desk have bordered on the unintelligible. No matter what the quality of the writing, when I agree to review a paper, I usually spend many hours reading the paper, thinking about the work, checking the claims, verifying that any associated software works, checking data, and eventually writing up an evaluation of the work. That’s hard work. Writing a high quality review is hard work.
Somewhat paradoxically, the reviewers who spend countless hours to write high quality reviews go largely unrewarded. They are unpaid volunteers, and the cultural practice of anonymous peer review disconnects the reviewer from receiving credit from the rest of the scientific community. The only person who ever has the opportunity to associate the reviewer’s name to the review is the journal editor and many journal editors, especially those at high profile journals, are professionals who do not participate directly in academic research (or in faculty hiring committees). One could maybe argue that high quality reviews lead to high quality science, and so there is some very real society-level benefit that trickles down to the reviewer herself. Maybe.
The culture of anonymous peer review seems totally perverse and broken to me. I’ve heard the argument that anonymity can be important for the situation where Professor AlphaChimp attempts to publish work with severe deficiencies. When Mr. OmegaNerd points those deficiencies out in the manuscript review he can do so without worry of getting bullied by AlphaChimp by virtue of the veil of anonymity. But that same veil prevents the rest of the scientific community from praising Mr. OmegaNerd for his excellent detective work and for having the gumption to communicate about the problems without restraint and with clarity.
Fortunately I think the situation outlined above is less common than many proponents of anonymous peer review would like us to believe. By the time of journal submission many papers are well reasoned. A more common occurrence is that the reviewer, possibly in part due to the lack of incentive to read the paper carefully and write a quality review, writes a careless negative review that prevents the paper from getting published. But probably most common of all is that the reviewers usually provide thoughtful, balanced, and helpful reviews.
While publishing some of my own work recently I found myself with some unusually well thought-out reviews. The comments made by the reviewers would certainly be of interest to future readers of the manuscript. Even though they were anonymous, I wanted to publish the peer reviews along with the paper here on my blog or as comments on the journal’s web site. But after inviting the opinions of several colleagues I decided not to do it. Everyone thought publishing the anonymous reviews was a bad idea, mainly because the reviewers wrote with the expectation that their comments would remain private to the editor, themselves, and the authors. But it also brought my attention to the legal question of copyright on anonymous peer reviews:
Can an author legally publish someone’s anonymous peer review? Do the anonymous reviewers hold an implied copyright on their reviews? If so, and if one were published against a reviewer’s will, would that reviewer have to compromise anonymity to request the removal of a published review? (and induce the streisand effect in doing so)
Even though I wanted to publish the anonymous reviews it seemed unwise to publish them along with the work itself. Had I been able to contact the reviewers to ask permission they might have agreed! But anonymity prevented me from (conveniently) contacting them and the reviewers did not indicate whether I had permission to republish their reviews.
So from now on I have decided to place a copyright statement on all of my reviews to make it abundantly clear to the authors whether they have permission to republish the review. The license I have chosen for my reviews is the Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives license. That license will allow manuscript authors to publish my review along with their work, so long as the review is published in unmodified form. The attribution aspect implies that my name will be attached to the review. I think that imparts a level of honesty in the review process, and I sign my reviews even if they are negative. I understand not all reviewers share my views on that matter, but even if written anonymously, I think it would be wonderful if reviewers could indicate their willingness for the review to be shared by attaching a copyright licensing statement to their review.
Hear ye reviewers, go forth and write high quality reviews, and let them be published so you can receive credit for your hard work!
It may be possible with some legal gymnastics to attach an enforceable copyright license to an anonymous peer review, but I think that misses the point. Our reviews should be published to encourage high quality review and to provide credit to the reviewers who play an important role in advancing the state of the art in science. Some people argue that such a practice will merely lead to “old boys clubs” or networks of peers who always provide positive reviews of each other’s work and thus compromise the quality of science. But such social networks form whether peer review is anonymous or not. If reviews and reviewer’s names were published then at least there would be some greater transparency and accountability in the social networks. Maybe reviewers should insist on the right to publish their review in exchange for their hard work?