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What is really “Anonymous”?

January 30, 2011

I realize that this is not the Feminist IR 101 post that you may have been expecting, or some bright engagement with what’s going on in that area we seem to be able to so easily group as “the Middle East …” but it is something that I’ve been thinking about recently, so …

In theory, journal review is double-blind: the reviewers shouldn’t know who the author is, and the author shouldn’t know who the reviewers are. In practice, this almost never works, and seems like a dying standard anyway. That said, for the purposes of this rant, take it as a given: reviews should be, and often are, double-blind. The question, for now, is how to best achieve that when cites to the authors’ other published work are involved.

So there are two ways to accomplish anonymity: 1) remove the cites to the authors’ work, replacing them with the word “author,” or 2) leave the cites to the authors’ work in the third person, as if they are being cited in the normal course of writing the article.

To me, if the authors have published anything of any note in the field, #2 is a clear answer. But in the last month, two very different journals have (in my opinion, totally wrongly) taken the other position. So, why do I think there’s a clear answer? And what am I missing?

Here are just the top 5 reasons I think that putting the word “author” is just a bone-headed decision:

1) It serves to identify the author. If something says, “There are traditionally three images: man, the state, and war.” (AUTHOR) … well, its clear who the author is. If something says, “There are traditionally three images: man, the state, and war” (Waltz 1959), well, Waltz could have written it, or someone else could have written it, and it can be judged on its merits. What isn’t cited can be as identifying as what is.

2) It encourages dumb critiques that say “should have cited Laura Sjoberg more,” when the article used to cite Laura Sjoberg but since she was the author the journal made her remove citations to self where there wasn’t a quote and put “author” where there is a quote – reducing the overall quality of the article, particularly when the journal asks reviewers a direct question about the adequacy of citations to the literature. And before you laugh – I’ve gotten this critique, more than once.

3) It decreases the readability of the article. The (AUTHOR) citation just gets in the way, and draws attention to the question of the author’s identity. It is confusing and annoying to read as a reviewer.

4) Anyone who can’t figure out how to cite themselves when and only when it is essential to the article doesn’t deserve to participate in the review process anyway. I mean, really, how hard is it?

5) Having a hard and fast rule on this is managing editor laziness. Should you send back something that is a graduate student citing a conference paper they presented when it hasn’t been published? Sure. But should you send back the person who wrote an award-winning book last year for citing to that book? No. Because anyone would have cited to it if they were writing in that area. There’s middle ground, certainly, but it is not rocket science, and it matters to protecting anonymity. Sending both back is just being imprecise.

That’s just my .02. Please, let me know what I’ve missed that makes this less obvious than it appears to me.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.