Signing my peer review – unintended consequences and gender

Roughly two years ago, I began to sign every peer review I did for journals. It resulted directly from a review on an article that I received that had glaring issues and made me wonder “Would they have been this sloppy if they had to attribute their name to this work?”

I perform peer review with the utmost attention and care. For these reasons, I also decline some requests, so that I can guarantee those papers I accept for review are given as much attention as they deserve. I’m proud of my work, so, why not sign my name? Also, since I’m often asked to review work that is connected to a web service, I could finally stop bouncing my IP through another country to avoid accidentally unblinding peer review (note to journals, you really should offer a VPN service to allow peer reviewers to test web services or software without revealing locations…how many researchers in St. Louis, Missouri have expertise in large datasets or supervised learning of post-translational modifications?)

I had several colleagues expound on the virtues of signing peer reviews, in essence agreeing this was a good path forward. However, in retrospect, I realize all of the people I know who sign their reviews (so far) are men, specifically white men.  As a scientist, I cannot state the following claim unequivocally, I have far too little data. But, as a peer reviewer, I know enough now to state that as a woman, signing my reviews is likely detrimental to the process and integrity of peer review. For about two-thirds of the articles I have reviewed, the authors do not seem to have responded to my reviews any differently than for those I did as a blind reviewer. However, enough of the authors have had a strikingly different response to my critiques than to the critiques of other reviewers for the same article, that I have decided my contribution to science will be better served by not signing my reviews. (Another aside: excellent job to the journals who share all peer reviews with all reviewers at the end of the decision process). This difference in response has typically been in the form of not adequately addressing my concerns (or sometimes addressing them at all) and differences in the tone or language used in response to my critiques then another reviewer who did not sign their review.

Again, I can’t say that gender has played a role in the differences I’ve seen. It could also be career status — I’m also an Assistant Professor — or it could simply be attributed to generally humanizing the process (on all these reviews, that I know of, I was the only one of the reviewers that revealed my identity). Since my male colleagues, some who are also assistant professors, have not shared similar observations and after several years are still touting the benefits of signing peer review, I’m less inclined to believe it’s the latter hypotheses about career stage and humanization of peer review. Whatever is at play, I have reversed my decision to sign my reviews (for now). I have also rethought my general stance on whether peer review should be blinded. I now believe that unblinding peer review would have significant, unintended consequences.