Anonymous peer reviewers: the real heroes of academia

peer review monument

Research is not merely an endeavor to increase knowledge. It is an endless war on ignorance – But who is the greatest hero in this battle? And how can we acknowledge this struggle?

These words lead off the fundraising promo campaign for the project Creating the World’s First Monument to an Anonymous Peer Reviewer,” launched on Kickstarter online platform in 2016. The campaign had a simple goal: to raise funds for turning a 1.5-tonne cube-shaped stone, lying in front of the Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Moscow, into a sculpture celebrating academic peer review. Soon after, the initiative was featured in the Guardian and Nature and attracted immediate worldwide attention. Most importantly, the campaign was a success – the world’s (probably) first monument to an anonymous peer reviewer came into existence!

The creator of the idea was Igor Chirikov, now the Director of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium, based at Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California – Berkeley. Igor believed it was not fair that anonymous peer reviewers were so unpopular and sometimes even openly disliked among academics, and that their work was not adequately recognised. In his defense of peer reviewers, he asks rhetorically in the promo video of his campaign: “But who else is going to tell hard-working researchers that they should do more experiments or add more control groups?”

What follows is an interview with Igor, in which we ask him to tell us a little bit more about the importance of anonymous peer review and, of course, about the monument.

The main idea of the Monument to an Anonymous Peer Reviewer was to celebrate an unlikely hero of research process: the anonymous peer reviewer. You have already been in the shoes of both: a researcher and a peer reviewer. What do you think about the relationship between these two roles and the responsibilities they imply?

There is, of course, a close interdependence of these two roles as most researchers also serve as reviewers. But peer review in academia is a story of love and hate. I very much like the story of Albert Einstein who was not a big fan of peer-review when he first encountered it in American academia. After receiving a rejection letter from the editor based on poor review, Einstein wrote back: “We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorised you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the – in any case erroneous – comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident, I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.” And he eventually published this paper in another good journal.

But here is a twist: as researchers of Einstein scholarship later demonstrated, the updated version of the paper incorporated some of the reviewer’s comments! So, despite the fact that he was suspicious of the peer-review process, he also benefited from it.

The monument has a shape of a die stamped with four decisions which a reviewer commonly makes after reviewing a manuscript: “Accept”, “Major Changes,” “Minor Changes,” “Revise and resubmit,” and “Reject.” Criticism is very common in both giving and receiving peer feedback, especially in journals and even experienced scholars have to deal with it. How, in your opinion, should early-career researchers approach critical and negative comments on their work?

Nobody loves to hear or read negative comments (even Einstein!), but this is a crucial part of academic life. The most important thing when reading the comments is not to get distracted by disappointment in figuring out how comments will help to improve your paper. Remember that these comments are not about you personally and not about all your papers but about this particular work. Try to update your manuscript based on the feedback and move on to another potential place of publication.

What do you think could be key ingredients of a good recipe to have one’s paper published in a well-reputed and highly competitive journal?

The recipe is simple – it should be a well-written paper that makes an important contribution to the field. But there is no universal recipe on how to write that paper. And this is what makes research so exciting – you need to be creative and develop your own path in research.

We all know how important the work of peer reviewer is. What, in your opinion, is the difference between a good peer reviewer and a not-so-good one? What would your advice be to early-career scholars who wish to contribute to the community through peer feedback and review?

There is one person that helped me to understand the difference between a good peer reviewer and a not-so-good one: Simon Marginson (I hope he does not mind I mention him here). He gave me very important advice about peer-review that I very much appreciate. A good review not only has to contain the right academic judgement but also inspire an author to improve the paper and not discourage her or him from academic work. So, when you are working on peer reviews try to emphasize how the paper can be improved – the author will then thank you (virtually).

It has been several years since the monument was unveiled and opened to the public in front of the HSE Institute of Education. Do you think the monument has made the anonymous peer reviewer more visible?

The feedback from the academic community was very positive. I believe that those who saw the monument or read about it not only had a good laugh but also started to appreciate the work of peer-reviewers more. But there are, certainly, more important efforts to praise and reward peer-reviewers like peer-review week and Publons. Also, I like that my alma mater, HSE University Moscow now has an academic attraction and that scholars from all over the world would like to see it and take pictures (and also rub the Accept side of the dice for the good luck!).

Irina Shcheglova is a research fellow at the Centre of Sociology of Higher Education, Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia.

Photo: The Monument to an Anonymous Peer Reviewer in Moscow, by ECHER

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