[DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in my posts are personal opinions, and they do not reflect the editorial policy of Social Psychological and Personality Science or its sponsoring associations, which are responsible for setting editorial policy for the journal.]
when i started my first job as associate editor, i was worried that i would get a lot of complaints from disgruntled authors. i wasn't afraid of the polite appeals based on substantive issues, i was worried about the complaints that appeal to the authors' status, the "don't you know who i am?" appeal.i never did get that kind of response, at least not from authors. but i saw something worse - a pretty common attitude that we should be judging papers based, in part, on who wrote them. socially sanctioned status bias. not so much at the journals i worked with, but in the world of journals more broadly. like the Nature editorial, on whether there should be author anonymity in peer review, that argued that "identifying authors stimulates referees to ask appropriate questions (for example, differentiating between a muddy technical explanation and poor experimental technique)." the argument seems to be that some people should be given a chance to clear up their muddy explanations and others should not. or the editor who wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education just a few days ago that "Editors rarely send work out to trusted reviewers if it comes from unproven authors using jazz-hands titles." leaving aside the contentious issue of jazz-hand titles, when did we accept that it was ok to treat papers from 'unproven authors' differently?once or twice, i've even been explicitly pressured to treat a manuscript differently because of the prestige of the authors or institutions they were from. that pressure didn't come from the authors, it came from someone at the journal.* since then i've learned that this is pretty common - some journals and editors want to publish papers by famous people, because they think this will improve their impact factor (they're probably right). in fact, some of the very top journals actively solicit manuscripts from the elite, and those are often given less scrutiny than unsolicited submissions.you probably already knew that, but i was naive and finding this out kind of blew my mind.** i thought maybe some arrogant people would think they deserve special treatment, but i didn't think the system would give it to them, and defend that practice with a straight face. the Great Man (or Great Woman) culture is stronger than i thought. there will probably always be this status bias for decisions like who gets to give keynotes, who gets media attention, and who is able to get money from private foundations. but - and i know i'm too old to still be this naive - we should eradicate this attitude from the peer review process, especially for publications (grants are more complicated because you're evaluating the person and the project, but i still think status bias is a huge problem there).the more i edit, the more i think we need to resist this Great Man culture. who you are and what institution you're from should have no bearing on how your manuscript is handled during the review process. there should certainly not be any explicit favoritism towards high status people, and we need to be vigilant against implicit status bias, too.for this reason (and others), i have become a big fan of blinding authors' identities during the review process. i know it doesn't always work,*** but it's the right idea, and i can't think of any way in which it causes harm. (the empirical evidence on blinding is completely inconclusive, so that suggests that, for now, we should decide on ethical grounds. and the ethical considerations seem, to me, to squarely favor blinding.)in fact, i'm such a fan of not knowing who the authors are when i review a paper that i have decided not to look at who the authors are when i first receive a manuscript as editor. it's hard - it's tempting to look, and also i literally have to hold my hand up to my computer screen to hide the information from myself - but after doing this for several months, i'm convinced it has improved my editing.****of course, if i decide to send a manuscript out to reviewers, at that point i need to look at who the authors are so i can make sure to avoid conflicts of interest. however, when i am first reading a new submission and deciding whether to desk reject it or not, and when i am writing the desk rejection letter, i don't need to know who the authors are. after writing the desk rejection letter but before sending it, i look at who the authors are, and very rarely, i find out i have a conflict of interest. in that case, i assign it to an associate editor who does not have a conflict of interest, and let them make the decision. otherwise i send the letter i wrote before i knew who the authors were. (i've occasionally added a sentence or two to the letter, based on my knowledge of the authors' past work, but have not changed my decision.)this is not a policy at any journal i work with - no journal that i know of has a policy of blinding the editors to the authors' identities. it's a choice i make - everyone has their own style of editing, what information they choose to look at in what order. i choose not to know who the authors are for as long as possible.this forces me to evaluate the work on its own merits. i can't give someone the benefit of the doubt because i know they've done good work in the past, and i can't unconsciously penalize someone because i've never heard of them or their institution. you would think that it would often be obvious who the authors are, or at least what institution they're from, but so far i've only been able to guess correctly a small fraction of the time (less than 5%). maybe i suck at guessing, but even if someone was better at it than me, guessing is very different than knowing. thinking that a manuscript was submitted by someone i think highly of, but not knowing for sure, makes me less likely to be influenced by that belief.overall, it's kind of annoying and a lot less fun to read manuscripts without knowing who the authors are. but there are several big advantages. first, and most importantly, i think it's more fair to the authors. second, it allows me to know, for sure, how i would have evaluated the manuscript if i didn't who the authors were. it's happened to me a few times already that, upon revealing the authors' identities to myself, i was quite surprised, and had a very distinct feeling that i might have let my biases creep in if i had known their identities when reading the manuscript. (despite the fact that, of course, i try very hard not to let that influence me. i know some social psychology.) third, this practice makes me feel better about the necessary interconnections that naturally exist in any small field. for example, as editors and reviewers, we often find ourselves at the same bar or dinner table as another researcher, and then the next day we receive their manuscript to handle or review. by blinding myself to the authors' identities when i make the initial desk reject decision, i can rest easy when i socialize with researchers knowing that even if i do have to make a decision on their work the next day, it won't be personal.a small tangent on conflicts of interestanother common argument against blinding authors' identities from reviewers is that this makes it harder for the reviewers to know if they have conflicts of interest. i would be more sympathetic to this concern if i saw evidence that reviewers (and editors) take these conflicts of interest seriously when they do know the authors' identities. in my experience, people don't recuse themselves nearly as much as they should. i know because i used to do it, too. i believed i could be impartial (and my pattern of rejecting my friends' papers over and over again gives some plausibility to this claim*****). but i now realize that this is not the question i should be asking myself. the question i should be asking myself is, if the world knew that i was a reviewer or the editor for the manuscript, would they think that was unfair? if the answer is yes, we should recuse ourselves.******back to the main pointi've only rarely heard someone use the "don't you know who i am?" appeal - much more often, it's used in the third person. as in, "we can't say no to [famous person]." i guess i still haven't shaken the young idealist in me that fell in love with academia in part because it was supposed to reject such appeals to authority or fame. i am not disillusioned - i think we often do a good job of evaluating research on its merits. i also had the great privilege of having role models like Dave Kenny, Laura King, and Rich Lucas - people who taught me how to be a reviewer and editor, and who also exemplify how not to let success go to your head, who refuse to play the Great Man/Woman role. we can all contribute to that culture by trying to combat - and protect ourselves from - our own biases. let's not confuse status with quality - the two may be correlated, but relying on that heuristic does a disservice to science.* not that journal, another journal.** frequent readers of this blog will notice that my mind gets blown pretty often.*** you know what works even less? telling reviewers who the authors are. if the argument against blinding authors' identities is that reviewers might guess who the authors are, how is that an argument for telling the reviewers who the authors are?for other (in my view, pretty weak) arguments against blind review, see this: http://pps.sagepub.com/
content/4/1/62.full.pdf+html.**** i also learned that if you work at cafes with your hand covering part of your computer screen, people will sit as far away from you as possible.***** sorry alexa.****** at SPPS the handling editor's name is now published with each manuscript, so this hypothetical is now a reality for the editors. in fact, you'll notice that, in the july issue of SPPS, i was the handling editor on a paper with brian nosek as an author. i assigned the manuscript to myself before brian and i really started collaborating on SIPS (and at the time i was not friends with him, except in the facebook sense*******), but even then i should've known better. i'll try to do better in the future, and being identified on articles as handling editor will help keep me honest.******* he finally added me to his professional network on linkedin.