Many journals in our field, perhaps most, anonymise the submissions they send out for review, and pass comments back to authors anonymised in turn: a “double-blind” system. This has always been ROLSI’s practice (at least, it has been under the editorship of the last five editors). But occasionally a reader or potential reviewer raises the question as to why this is preferable to signed reviews, or indeed submissions with the author’s name attached.
I thought readers might be interested in a recent e-mail dialogue with a reader on just these issues.
They have kindly allowed me to reprint their questions (italicised below) and my answers, though they prefer to remain anonymous.
Q. As all linguists know, context is crucial in the interpretation of any text. Removing the name(s) of the author(s) deprives the reviewer of the most important piece of the context. Thoughts that come to mind: What else has the author written on the topic? What are the influences on the author?
A. I’m not sure that the issue of ‘context’ is helpful here. Or if it is, then the proper context is (I would say) the context of the extant literature on the subject, not the author’s record.
Q. Being asked by the author to comment on the paper: On a visit to a university I met a young man and as we chatted he talked about a paper he’d like my comments on. He said it had received not-so-good reviews from a journal. I agreed to take a look. When he sent it I realized that I was one of the reviewers who suggested major revisions. I had no choice at that point but to say I was one of the reviewers, so I sent him the review and said I stood by it. If the authors’ names had been revealed to me when I reviewed the paper, I would have been able to avoid that tricky situation.
A. That is indeed a delicate situation, but a rare one, I should think. And if the reviewer has written a collegial, respectful and scholarly review (as all ROLSI reviewers do!) then there should be, if the recommendation was negative, only the awkwardness of managing a bit of bad but useful news.
Q. Being able to guess the author. It is natural to try to guess who the author is. Sometimes this is even possible. One can Google key words in the title. So the reviewer might waste a lot of time on this project rather than focusing on the paper. So why not just let the reviewer have this information up front?
A. I doubt that a reviewer will spend much time trying to track down the identity of the author. Either they think they know or – much more usually – they don’t, or don’t feel the need to know.
Q. Making a wrong guess about the author. Again, because it is natural to want to know who the author is, one can make an erroneous guess and this can get you into trouble, too. Or not knowing, but perhaps suspecting, that the author is someone I know. This is the worst situation because then you spend a lot of time worrying about how to handle this, rather than actually working on the paper.
A. I think that most reviewers are wise enough to know that their guesses (if they make them) are quite likely to be wrong, so don’t let such a guess, if made, colour their comments. The reviewer may, or may not, be well-disposed to an author they recognise and like, or the converse. But the danger is obviously greater if the name is given, removing all doubt; then the well- or ill-disposed reviewer is not held back by uncertainty.
Q. Going even further, I also think that the referees should be identified to make the process maximally transparent. Some referees are not very civil in their comments; it is possible that if their names were associated with their comments they might be kinder and more helpful. Also the submitting author always tries to guess who the reviewers are and is often successful!
A. Just on my own experience: ROLSI reviewers are almost without exception respectful in their comments; indeed even when making negative recommendations their tone is on the whole constructive and supportive (I can call to mind only two occasions, out of many hundreds, where this was not so; and even then it would be a rogue phrase or a regrettable adjective, easily amended after consultation) . And as far as guessing the reviewers’ identity, I doubt if that is successful in one out of 50 cases.
To finish off with a couple of general observations about ROLSI’s policy:
The positive case for double-blind can be put in two arguments, which I think are strong:
- it liberates reviewer and reviewer from ad-hominem considerations, both favourable and unfavourable; and
- it makes some effort to diminish the gender, and perhaps ethnicity bias in un-anonymised assessment (for which evidence admittedly comes mostly from undergraduate essays and the like, but is nevertheless suggestive).