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From D.J. Wesolowski: Preserving Anonymity in the Review Process, EOS, 84, 583

To those scientists who haven’'t served as editors or associate editors of scientific journals, I can assure you that it’s already too hard to find enough qualified reviewers willing to do the job without threatening them with exposure as well! So, if you want your papers to be published within a reasonable time frame, you'll pretty much have to put up with anonymous reviews. I’ve been an associate editor of Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta for 11 years and an Editorial Board member of Chemical Geology for 4. I think anonymous reviews are perfectly acceptable, but that the editor evaluating the reviews should always be identified, both to the authors and in the published manuscript. Reviewers should be permitted to request anonymity, but authors should always be instructed to specifically acknowledge in their manuscripts the contributions of those reviewers who do not request anonymity. This, in fact, might encourage more reviewers to identify themselves. I don’t know about you, but it tickles me pink when I see my name in print!

The review process is intended to ensure that: the material is new or a useful summary of previous work, the data and conclusions are correct or at least believable, proper credit is given to previous researchers, the subject matter and impact are appropriate for the target journal, and the presentation is readable and civil. How best to ensure these should be the only consideration in soliciting and evaluating reviews. Requiring reviewers to identify themselves to the authors is likely to force a more favorable review than is warranted or more likely result in the most suitable reviewers declining to comment. Anonymity certainly encourages vindictive or superficial reviews, but it is the associate editor’s job to weed these out. Furthermore, authors normally have the option of appealing a rejection to the editor-in-chief or requesting another associate editor, and these options should always be made available.

I’d like to conclude with some observations. There is no absolute safeguard against incorrect reviews or editorial decisions, regardless of anonymity. Rarely do editors and even reviewers examine manuscripts in sufficient detail to completely understand the material, and frequently they don’t have as deep an understanding of the subject as the authors. Therefore, I feel that authors should routinely be given the benefit of the doubt. Rather than the review process being the ultimate watchdog, the published “comments and replies” that many journals offer are an underutilized method of airing scientific debates. Perhaps it is not fair for bean counters to consider these as formal publications, and an alternative avenue might be to permit some such dialog to be included as an appendix to the manuscript in dispute, even to the extent of preserving the anonymity of the reviewers. I know that publication is an expensive process, but I think it costs us more as a society if we too arduously squelch controversial observations and hypotheses. These sometimes prove to have been correct in the first place, and they frequently spark new lines of research and testing in any event.

Finally, I’m tired of well-qualified reviewers rejecting manuscripts out of hand because of poor spelling and grammar or ugly tables and figures. We function in a global scientific community, and we communicate every day, and very effectively, with scientists who do not have a flawless grasp of the English language and/or who lack the resources we take for granted in developed nations. Why do we hold these same people to much higher standards in the published literature? I have rarely seen writing so bad that I could not understand the message the authors were trying to convey.

– David J. Wesolowski, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn., USA