On the perils of revealing your identity after peer review.

by Niklas Elmqvist, University of Maryland, College Park

Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash.

Just this morning I came upon a tweet by Evan Peck, a colleague and fellow CS faculty member, who was raising the question about whether you should ever follow-up with a person for whom you wrote a tenure letter, essentially giving them a “virtual high-five” for their achievement. I responded to his tweet, and then thought that this deserves a more in-depth treatment, as the notion of whether or not you should remain anonymous applies not just to tenure decisions, but also to paper and grant reviews.

Here’s a hint: stay anonymous. 

At first glance, it may seem harmless to reveal yourself to the person you spent so much time reading and thinking about, or to the paper or grant authors whose work you loved. In a life plagued by rejections, the only time us academics ever receive positive feedback is when we get something accepted for once. So why not share in this rare moment of joy and allow yourself to feel good about your accomplishment in helping a fellow academic succeed? What’s the harm in telling your colleague that you were one of the anonymous reviewers, and that you loved their work?

But think about it a little longer, and you will realize that there is a downside to revealing yourself. You should definitely share in the joy and congratulate your close friends when they succeed, but part of the reason you were selected as a reviewer is that you are (hopefully) not a close friend of this person. Please don’t mistake your relationship to the candidate. Close friends don’t keep a tally of favors, and perhaps you are not a person that does that, but there can easily be such a perception. In other words, if you reveal yourself to a colleague as one of the benefactors that helped get their tenure, paper, or grant accepted, you may be—unwittingly or not—creating a debt of gratitude for your help.

Let me illustrate this with a personal anecdote. Several years ago when I served as a program committee member for the ACM CHI conference, I was assigned as “shepherd” to a paper under review. The paper was good but had some flaws that needed fixing before publication, and it was my job as shepherd to communicate directly with the authors to have these changes made. At the time, the conference suggested shepherds reach out directly to the authors, thus bypassing the anonymity of the review process. I did, thus revealing my identity, and ever since I have felt an awkward feeling at having done so. While I and the authors have since talked this out, the CHI conference has now changed its stance to requiring communications between shepherds and authors to remain anonymous.

And there is a reason that peer review is (mostly) anonymous. The persons involved in the review, on either side, should not matter, only their scientific work. The process is supposed to be fair, but the moment you reveal your identity, you may be introducing an unfair component into the equation. After all, isn’t it better if your colleague can go through the rest of their career with a beatific sense of general gratitude towards their senior peers rather than feel an uncomfortable and sometimes awkward debt towards a specific person and wondering how they can ever repay it?

A final caveat here is that there is such a thing as open peer review, where both authors and reviewers are known to each other. I’m not sufficiently informed of this practice to have an opinion, but I would be wary that this debt of gratitude could occur here as well. Perhaps the fact that these reviews are open for all to see, and not secret and just divulged to the author by the reviewer, makes this less of an issue?

Anyway, as a rule, I would advise you to stay in the shadows, my friends. I know that the temptation to share in the joy of a rare acceptance can be significant, but the downsides are just not worth it.