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Should peer reviewers remain anonymous?

Wadim Strielkowski, Professor of Economics, Visiting Scholar at UC Berkeley | March 3, 2018

Should peer reviewers remain anonymous? Perhaps with the digital epoch we are living in the time has came to change this.

In a recent article published in Science (“Judge orders unmasking of anonymous peer reviewers,” News in Depth, February 2, 2018, pp. 504-505), Andrew P. Han of Retraction Watch describes what has now been historically the first U.S. court order issued by a state judge in California and demanding the academic publisher to identify the anonymous peer reviewers of the 2013 sport medicine journal article.

Reviewers’ confidentiality has for long been the cornerstone of academic publishing, even though many academic journals are already using a system when the author can suggest the reviewers during the article submission. Yet, there might be a time for a change and unmasking the peer reviewers can become the new reality. This might be especially relevant due to the rise of the so-called “predatory open-access journals and publishers.” In a 2013 experiment concocted by Science (“Who is afraid of peer review?” News, October 4, 2013, pp. 60-65), John Bohannon demonstrated that sometimes peer reviews are made up by the dubious publishers just to mimic the good academic publishing standards.

We need to do something to identify the fraudulent journals and publishers and this has to be done in the organized and civilized way. Since most would agree that one of the most typical features of suspicious journals is the absence of a proper peer review, perhaps a new initiative called “publons” might help. Publons is a global community embracing over 25,000 journals and more than 270,000 peer reviewers linked to the ORCID identification control scheme that encourages academics to peer-review research articles and to earn virtual tokens or “publons” along the way. The initiative, which is in a way similar to CrossRef and its DOI, has already found many supporters. Big academic publishing players such as Clarivate Analytics, Wiley, Sage, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis group, Cambridge University Press, or Oxford University Press among many others partnered with the publons initiative. Some universities reportedly started checking the publons profiles of the potential job candidates. Do not have enough publons and turning down offers to review papers? You can forget about your dream job!

Introducing the transparent and functional system of reviewers’ identifications would virtually allow us to kill two birds with one stone: It would enable us to combat predatory publishing and to corroborate disputable research outcomes in academic articles. If all reviewers were using some sort of identification, it would be possible to check whether any given article was peer-reviewed at all and by whom.

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