Anonymity and journal reviews and my thesis advisor

I am not a fan of anonymity in journal reviews. I sign mine (although editors often remove that). And I started this after I got tenure (yes, yes). I also will show trainees the letters I write for them. I think double blind reviews are idiotic. I have developed an animal model system and while other people use it, now, it is very clear what is my work.

But, the point of this post is to tell a story about my thesis advisor. He was a character. He supported lots of bs from me, but basically in the end didn’t care about much other than his greater glory. He’s dead now, and I got to write a story about him that got published and that made me very happy. Lots of good stories there, but this is one of my favorite.

In the olden dayes before the intertubz, before word-processors, people wrote reviews on their typewriters. Sometimes they wrote them by hand. My advisor, who published more than you or I or you and I will, kept every review in a file cabinet. Because he was a Big Dog and one of the original BSDs, he also had lots and lots of correspondence, which allowed him to develop an index of type fonts and people. He remembered every review. And when he got one he didn’t like, he pulled out the old ones to compare type-face. Old style forensics.

I remember one paper we did together (he was first author, of course) in which he quickly identified the reviewer because of the backwards facing check marks in the margin (yes a reviewer got a paper copy of the manuscript which they marked up). Dr. Backwards Checks was a former student and what impressed me is after all the CSI on the review he said “well, damn if Jack doesn’t have some good points here”.

I guess he thought the identifying was a game, and felt that he paid ‘sufficient’ attention to all the reviews. Not sure I buy that. Bottom line is, that while no one may know you are a dog, but everyone will know who wrote the paper and who reviewed it. And everyone will make too many mistakes (in both directions) to the detriment of all. Applies to grants, too.

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7 thoughts on “Anonymity and journal reviews and my thesis advisor

  1. I’ve heard exactly the same story about files of typewriter correspondence and reviewer sleuthing. Although in this case, the sleuth would make a phone call to the reviewer and argue directly.

    • My advisor was above that (in his words). I admit at my last move, I threw out all the paper correspondence from my early pubs. But can you imagine someone calling you up today and arguing about your grant review?

      • I know, it’s crazy! And yet, knowing what I know about this person, it seems completely plausible. Even likely.

  2. This can be done today, based not on typewriters but word choice. In most fields there are several different names for the same thing, and certain people just have a unique word/term that sticks out. A bit of creative googling with quote marks can go a long way to revealing who a reviewer is. Another subtle sign is how reviewers refer to work they think should be cited. Nobody will say “cite my paper dammit”, but the precise way they cite the work (by First/Last author, journal/year, or PMID), and how detailed they get (your results disagree with Figure 2B of x et al.) can reveal a lot. Also numbering systems for individual points – 1). 2). 3). / A B C / (i) (ii) (iii) – are not unique, but can be used to correlate reviews.

    Of course any detective system is open to trickery – I may or may not have edited reviews to deliberately misspell things, creating the impression that English may not be my first language. I may or may not have cited my own work in reviews, being careful to cite only PMIDs.

    • ha ha ha. But mostly, this is a waste of time given the problems associated with false positives (ie fingering the wrong reviewer). You will end up hating the wrong person for the rest of your life.

    • I’ll admit that in the ad hoc reviewing I’ve done, at the last minute I’ll switch around how I list the major/minor concerns (letters v. numbers, etc). I’ve also thrown in suggestions to cite other peoples’ work (unless it’s a nasty review).

      It’s hard not to speculate on reviewer identity, yet I try not to make any strong conclusions.

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