Nature's double-blind review. The opposite of what we need.

Lenny Teytelman Feb 23, 2015

Nature Publishing Group just announced that they will begin experimenting with double-blind peer review. I am thrilled to see that they are going to experiment. Their announcement is thoughtful and this effort is clearly carefully considered by them. It is also meant to address a key and serious bias problem in the current review system. I look forward to the outcome of the experiment, but I bet it will be a failure.

The bias problem has been called "the junior faculty" problem by Arjun Raj. As most new professors discover to their dismay, once they become last authors, their papers are suddenly getting rejected. They are still the ones doing the work and writing the paper. It's still the same innovative, high quality, well-written manuscript. Except now it's rejection after rejection. The reason is that the famous HHMI or Nobel professor in whose lab you did the postdoc is no longer on the manuscript. And if you are a woman, it's a lot worse. And if you are a scientist in Brazil - you're screwed.

So why am I skeptical? It's the way Nature is doing this. They are offering the option of double-blind submission to the author. Who exactly will be opting for this? The HHMI lab or the junior faculty? The same exact bias will persist.

I think the exact opposite of what Nature is doing - opening the review so that neither side is blind - that is the really powerful approach. Nature's announcement says that they experimented with this in 2006 and it was not successful. They also mention that researchers like the idea of double-blind. But the devil is in the details. The implementation is key. How you "experiment" matters. Nature didn't fully commit to open reviews like F1000Research or BMJ Open.

Finally, I think the biggest problem with peer review today is that it aims to destroy and reject papers. There is strong evidence that losing anonymity will have huge positive consequences for junior faculty, women, minorities; Hilda Bastian's recent article of this topic is one of the best I have seen. Most of all, whether you are a junior female black scientist or a white, male, elderly Nobel-winning scientist, I believe a shift to open reviews will bring us closer to the utopia that Arjun Raj encourages in his "How to review a paper."