Sunday, 28 September 2014

Should Anonymous Peer Review be Abolished?

The Welcoming Rio Classics Dept.   
Mid-week consisted of a mad dash to Rio de Janeiro to an enormous congress on disputes and face-offs in antiquity. It seemed an unlikely topic for the most well-balanced bunch of people I have encountered for ages:  Laughing over Dinner in Antiquity would have been a more apt theme. Not that I didn’t get challenged by a couple of shrewd critics after my lecture. But I love this part of my job—open disagreement, expressed with civility, between people brave enough to attach their identities to their views.

Anonymous Peer Reviewers
Academia’s Sacred Cow is Anonymous Peer Review, or secret reports/ references read behind closed doors. This creaky system means academics are all repeatedly stabbed in the back by masked assassins when their article is rejected by a journal, or their grant/promotion application rubbished. The result is completely unnecessary paranoia and toxic bad feeling when they speculate (often incorrectly) on the identity of the incognito saboteur. In a small subject like Classics it also means that you have inevitably been covertly coshed by a close colleague, a former lover, or someone envious of you.

Prof. Paul Cartledge
My belief that APR is damaging and obsolete was reinforced at the second conference of the week, a celebration of my role model and hero Paul Cartledge, retiring Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge. His successor Tim Whitmarsh gave a dazzling keynote, on an ancient Greek called Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who even 2,000 years ago knew all about Peer Review (although this was NOT what Prof. Whitmarsh was arguing--what follows is my personal response). Dionysius described the five types of professional opponents who  criticised his work:

1) Inveterate nit-pickers.
2) People ignorant of the material under discussion.
3) People whose criticisms depended on unverified rumour and assumptions.
4)  Malicious personal enemies who want to damage him.
5) People in an opposing ideological camp who will automatically oppose everything he says.

Anonymous Peer Reviewers who today sabotage other academics’ work fall into precisely Dionysius’ categories. I would add only one further: the egomaniac who complains the author hasn’t cited their own scholarship, however irrelevant.

I NEVER write a review or reference I would not be happy to see made public with my name on the bottom. I just don’t see that anonymity is helpful. Why not stick papers, CVs etc. up freely online and invite (non-anonymised) comments? If people are ashamed to have their views made public, in what universe is it professional to express them? My other great discovery this week, for my Classics & Class project, has been Mary Bridges Adams, a working-class classicist turned activist who in July 1915 complained about a critic who signed himself simply N.D. and constantly attacked her in print. She wrote in the Cotton Factory Times,

Let me beg of my opponents to reveal their identity. I hope N.D. will set the others an example, and let me know precisely who he is. Being a Welsh-woman I do not shrink from a fight, but I like to see ‘my foe-man’s face.’ 

I suspect Bridges Adams got the last phrase from the Iliad, where warriors with integrity like Achilles would not dream of attacking someone like a coward, anonymously, and there is a special term for proper, non-anonymised combat. And although I am not Welsh I couldn’t agree with her more. 


  1. It is commonly agreed that much of the antisocial behaviour seen in social media can be attributed to anonymity. While I had not considered the point you have raised before, I think that if we are willing to write something we should have our names attached to it. If you cannot make a statement without the protection of anonymity, perhaps you should reconsider whether you should write it at all.

  2. In the 1860s many progressive Liberals and Tories were in favour of enlarging the franchise. Not nearly so many were in favour of the secret ballot. Those opposed to it believed sincerely that a political citizen worth his salt should declare his opinion openly for all to see. It took some time to persuade them that the unequal distribution of power was a great inhibitor of the free expression of opinion.

    Personally I'm very comfortable with attributable peer review, but I've got a permanent job and don't need to constantly apply for research funds. I think though that the post-docs and junior faculty I mentor might take a different view.

    We all know about the self censorship that goes on when it is a matter of criticizing the work of our direct colleagues, something which even I balk at. How much worse would it be when the person you reviewed is sitting on the appointments board for your first tenure track job? Discretion is the better part of valour.

    I'm sympathetic to the idea of complete openness but I don't know what arguments I could use to reassure people who quite reasonably fear victimization & blacklisting.

  3. Excellent insights! Anonymity in peer review can contribute to the potential for abuse, unfortunately. See for anonymity relations and their impact on trust and accountability.