The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

I once was blind… but now I see

April 10, 2006

The Chronicle reports on a rather old problem in the electronic peer-review process: editors, authors, and reviewers forwarding Word documents without scrubbing the properties, tracked changes, and other sources of embedded data likely to reveal a writer’s or reviewer’s identity.

Henry Farrell weighs in: “I’ve been aware of this for a couple of years (I carefully strip all data before sending reviews out, just in case) – but I suspect that many academics aren’t (some of them may not even realize that Word collates this data automatically).”

About two years ago I reviewed a string of papers for different journals that had one thing in common: after having completed my review of each, I checked the properties of the documents and discovered the identity of the author. I always alerted the edtior (or assistant editor) and reminded him or her to watch out for these issues in the future. It doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore at any of the journals I regularly review manuscripts for.

Not that such efforts make a lot of difference–for preserving the anonymity of manuscript authors at least. The rise of search engines, conference paper archives, and web-posted information about academic talks makes it pretty easy to discover the author of a paper with a few keystrokes. Even in relatively large disciplines, such as political science, working papers often become pretty well-known in the pool of qualified reviewers that a conscientious editor will turn to in seeking informed assessments of a manuscript’s suitability for publication.

Is any of this problematic? I’ve never been convinced that blind peer-review is such a good thing (I’ll save peer review itself for another discussion). It may let reviewers “off the hook” when it comes to writing quality reviews. Some percentage of reviewers don’t bother to actually read a manuscript closely, maintain an appropriate level of professional courtesy, or otherwise do “due dilligence”; if they couldn’t hide behind anonymity they might be more inclined to take the duties of peer reivew seriously.

It can also make things harder for reviwers. International Studies Quarterly, for example, asks reviewers to estimate the probability that the author (or authors) can implement revisions. Certainly knowledge about who wrote a manuscript would lead a reviewer to make a more informed judgment on this kind of issue.

There are, of course, good arguments for double-blind peer review (the standard in my field). But a lot of those arguments are simply being superceded by technological change. We’re increasingly at a point of de facto single-blind review (i.e., of reviewer anonymity but not author anonymity). Perhaps we ought to take that fact into careful consideration.

All of this reminds me to note a new blog of interest: Political Science Journal Monitor. Unlike the train wreck that is IR Discussions, Political Science Journal Monitor may serve a real purpose. A good deal of the discussion is actually useful, although I’ve already read some ignorant snark about a prominent political scientists–which probably reveals that the commentators are too young to understand what a profound mark the scholar in question made on the field. Regardless, check it out.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.