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Peer Review Congress |

Effect on the Quality of Peer Review of Blinding Reviewers and Asking Them to Sign Their Reports:  A Randomized Controlled Trial FREE

Fiona Godlee, BSc, MRCP; Catharine R. Gale, BSc; Christopher N. Martyn, DPhil, FRCP
[+] Author Affiliations

From BMJ , London, England (Dr Godlee), and MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton, Southampton, England (Ms Gale and Dr Martyn).


JAMA. 1998;280(3):237-240. doi:10.1001/jama.280.3.237.
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Context.— Anxiety about bias, lack of accountability, and poor quality of peer review has led to questions about the imbalance in anonymity between reviewers and authors.

Objective.— To evaluate the effect on the quality of peer review of blinding reviewers to the authors' identities and requiring reviewers to sign their reports.

Design.— Randomized controlled trial.

Setting.— A general medical journal.

Participants.— A total of 420 reviewers from the journal's database.

Intervention.— We modified a paper accepted for publication introducing 8 areas of weakness. Reviewers were randomly allocated to 5 groups. Groups 1 and 2 received manuscripts from which the authors' names and affiliations had been removed, while groups 3 and 4 were aware of the authors' identities. Groups 1 and 3 were asked to sign their reports, while groups 2 and 4 were asked to return their reports unsigned. The fifth group was sent the paper in the usual manner of the journal, with authors' identities revealed and a request to comment anonymously. Group 5 differed from group 4 only in that its members were unaware that they were taking part in a study.

Main Outcome Measure.— The number of weaknesses in the paper that were commented on by the reviewers.

Results.— Reports were received from 221 reviewers (53%). The mean number of weaknesses commented on was 2 (1.7, 2.1, 1.8, and 1.9 for groups 1, 2, 3, and 4 and 5 combined, respectively). There were no statistically significant differences between groups in their performance. Reviewers who were blinded to authors' identities were less likely to recommend rejection than those who were aware of the authors' identities (odds ratio, 0.5; 95% confidence interval, 0.3-1.0).

Conclusions.— Neither blinding reviewers to the authors and origin of the paper nor requiring them to sign their reports had any effect on rate of detection of errors. Such measures are unlikely to improve the quality of peer review reports.

Figures in this Article

PEER REVIEW, as usually practiced by biomedical journals, protects the identity of reviewers but not of authors. Concerns about bias, lack of accountability, and poor quality of peer review have brought this practice into question. Two interventions, which together would reverse the balance of anonymity, have been suggested as possible solutions: removing authors' identities from the manuscript (blinding) and asking reviewers to sign their reports (signing).13 We performed a randomized controlled trial to examine the effect on peer review of blinding reviewers and asking them to sign their reports.

With the authors' consent, a paper already peer reviewed and accepted for publication by BMJ was altered to introduce 8 weaknesses in design, analysis, or interpretation.4 All reviewers whose specialities seemed broadly relevant to the subject of the paper were selected from the journal's database (n=834); 164 were excluded because they were known to be retired, dead, colleagues, or friends of the authors. Where more than 1 potential reviewer came from the same institution, the person whose name was lower in the alphabet was excluded. A statistician gave each reviewer a random number. These 670 reviewers were ordered and the first 420 were selected for allocation to 5 groups in random number sequence (Figure). Four of these groups were constructed, using a factorial design, to investigate the effects of blinding reviewers to the authors' identities and asking them to sign their reports. These reviewers were sent the paper by the editorial staff of the journal with a letter asking them to comment on the paper as part of a study into ways of improving peer review. Groups 1 and 2 were asked to comment on a version of the paper from which the authors' names and affiliations had been removed, while groups 3 and 4 were aware of the authors' identities. Groups 1 and 3 were asked to sign their reports, while groups 2 and 4 were asked to return their reports unsigned. A fifth group was sent the paper in the usual manner of the journal, with authors' identities revealed and on the understanding that the reviewer's name would be removed before the report was sent to the authors. Group 5 differed from group 4 only in that its members were unaware that they were taking part in a study. A power calculation suggested that we would need 50 reviewers in each group to detect a difference in mean error score of 1 point (α=.05, β=.9)—the smallest difference that journal editors judged worthwhile detecting. Because a pilot study had suggested that about half of the reviewers would decline to sign their reports, randomization was weighted 2 to 1 in favor of groups 1 and 3. All reviewers were asked to complete a questionnaire on their qualifications, academic position, and reviewing experience.

The main outcome measure was the number of weaknesses in the paper that were commented on by the reviewers. We also examined the recommendations the reviewers had made to the editors in regard to publication. Each reviewer's report was assessed independently by an editor and an epidemiologist, neither of whom was aware of the group to which the reviewer had been allocated. Where there was disagreement, the report was re-examined and consensus reached.

The frequency distribution of numbers of weaknesses detected followed a Poisson distribution so we used means to summarize these results. Analysis of variance, Mann-Whitney U tests, χ2 tests, and logistic regression were used to examine response rate and recommendations regarding publication. Poisson regression was used to examine performance at identifying weaknesses in the manuscript.

Of the 420 reviewers invited to comment on the manuscript, 221 (53%) returned a report. Among the 74 people (18%) who gave a reason for declining to review the manuscript, 46 said they felt they were not competent to comment and 16 said they were too busy. There were no statistically significant differences in response rate among the 5 groups of reviewers. The 5 groups did not differ significantly by demographic or academic characteristic. Those who reported on the manuscript tended to have reviewed for more journals in the previous year than the nonresponders. They were also more likely to be on the editorial board of a biomedical journal and to have received a higher grading for their past performance in writing reports by BMJ. Characteristics of respondents and nonrespondents are shown in Table 1.

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1.—Characteristics of Respondents and Nonrespondents

In total, 8 areas of weakness in design, analysis, or interpretation had been introduced into the manuscript. The mean number of weaknesses commented on was 2. Only 10% of reviewers identified 4 or more areas of weakness, and 16% failed to identify any.

We found no statistically significant difference in performance among the 37 reviewers in group 5 who had been sent the manuscript in the usual manner of BMJ and were unaware that they were taking part in a study and the 35 reviewers in group 4 who had been sent the manuscript under the same conditions but informed that they were participating in a study. These groups were therefore combined when we examined whether blinding reviewers and/or asking them to sign their reports affected the proportion of weaknesses they identified. Table 2 shows the mean number of errors detected by each group and rate ratios for identifying weaknesses. There were no statistically significant differences. Among the 90 respondents who had been blinded to the authors' identities, 23 (26%) named the authors correctly in their report. Rate ratios were little changed when these people were excluded.

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2.—Poisson Regression Rate Ratios for Identifying Errors in the Manuscript: The Effect of Blinding Reviewers to the Authors' Identities and Asking Them to Sign Their Reports

We also examined whether other characteristics of the reviewers were linked with better performance at identifying weaknesses in the manuscript (Table 3). Reviewers who had postgraduate training in epidemiology or statistics tended to comment on more points of weakness, but this relationship was not statistically significant. Neither sex nor experience as a peer reviewer or as a member of an editorial board was associated with the quality of the report. Younger reviewers, those currently involved in biomedical research, those with more publications in the previous 5 years, and those who had received a higher grading for their past performance in writing reports by BMJ were all more likely to identify weaknesses in the manuscript. In multivariate analysis, BMJ grade and number of publications remained statistically significant predictors of the number of errors detected.

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 3.—Poisson Regression Rate Ratios for Identifying Errors in the Manuscript: Factors Associated With Better Performance

Despite the weaknesses of the manuscript, 73 reviewers (33%) recommended that it be published with minor revision. Twenty-seven reviewers (12%) recommended that the manuscript should be published with major revision and 66 (30%) advised that it be rejected. Fifty-five (25%) made no recommendations regarding publication.

Reviewers in groups 1 to 4 who were aware they were taking part in a study tended to recommend outright rejection of the manuscript more often than those in group 5 who were unaware that they were participating in a study. We calculated odds ratios (ORs) for recommending rejection according to whether the reviewers had been blinded to the authors' identities or asked to sign their reports, restricting the analysis to groups 1 to 4. Reviewers who had been blinded were less likely to recommend rejection than those who were not blinded (OR, 0.5; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.3-1.0). This association was strengthened when reviewers who identified the authors' correctly were excluded (OR, 0.3; 95% CI, 0.1-0.6). Those who were asked to sign their reports were slightly less likely to recommend rejection than anonymous reviewers, but this relation was not statistically significant (OR, 0.7; 95% CI, 0.3-1.4).

This randomized controlled trial was designed to investigate the effects of blinding reviewers to the authors' identities and asking them to sign their reports in a context as close as possible to the usual way in which BMJ operates peer review. We found that these interventions had no effect on the quality of reviewers' reports as judged by the number of weaknesses that they identified in the manuscript. Although 4 of the 5 groups of reviewers knew that they were taking part in a study, their performance in detecting errors did not differ from those of the fifth group who were unaware that they were participating. We do not think that knowledge that they were taking part in the study is likely to have influenced these results. However, the response rate in the study was lower than usual for BMJ reviewers. Part of the explanation may be that the expertise of some of the reviewers we approached may have been peripheral to the subject of the manuscript. We know that 46 potential reviewers declined to write a report because they felt unqualified to comment. This point should also be borne in mind when considering the quality of the reports. Similar findings on reviewers' shortcomings at detecting weaknesses in a manuscript have been reported previously.5 While a reviewer who discovered 4 or 5 serious flaws in a manuscript might reasonably feel that it was unnecessary to mention more, this can hardly explain the low mean score. Had we chosen reviewers with more relevant expertise, the score might have been higher.

The questionnaire allowed us to investigate which characteristics of reviewers were associated with the most complete detection of errors in a manuscript. As others have shown,6 younger reviewers performed better than older reviewers. We also found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that reviewers who had themselves published a large number of articles in the past few years tended to identify more errors than those who had published little and that reviewers whose past performance in reviewing for BMJ had been highly rated by the editorial staff also tended to perform better.

One intriguing finding concerns reviewers' recommendations to the editor about publication. The groups who were blind to authors' identities were the least likely to recommend rejection.

Blinding reviewers to the identities and affiliations of authors and requiring them to sign their reports might prove to be a successful strategy in reducing bias and increasing accountability in peer review, though it is hard to ensure that blinding is complete. It may also make them less likely to recommend rejection. But the results of this study do not suggest that such measures would be very effective in improving the accuracy with which they detect weaknesses in a manuscript.

Fisher M, Friedman SB, Strauss B. The effects of blinding on acceptance of research papers by peer review.  JAMA.1994;272:143-146.
Blank RM. The effects of double blind versus single blind reviewing: experimental evidence from the American Economic Review Am Econ Rev.1991;81:1041-1067.
McNutt RA, Evans AT, Fletcher RH, Fletcher SW. The effects of blinding on the quality of peer review.  JAMA.1990;263:1371-1376.
Gale CR, Martyn CN, Cooper C. Cognitive impairment and mortality in a cohort of elderly people.  BMJ.1996;312:608-611.
Nylenna M, Riis P, Karlsson Y. Multiple blinded reviews of the same two manuscripts.  JAMA.1994;272:149-151.
van Rooyen S, Godlee F, Evans S, Black N. What makes a good reviewer and what makes a good review? Paper presented at: Third International Congress on Peer Review in Biomedical Publication; September 17, 1997; Prague, Czech Republic.

Figures

Tables

Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 1.—Characteristics of Respondents and Nonrespondents
Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 2.—Poisson Regression Rate Ratios for Identifying Errors in the Manuscript: The Effect of Blinding Reviewers to the Authors' Identities and Asking Them to Sign Their Reports
Table Graphic Jump LocationTable 3.—Poisson Regression Rate Ratios for Identifying Errors in the Manuscript: Factors Associated With Better Performance

References

Fisher M, Friedman SB, Strauss B. The effects of blinding on acceptance of research papers by peer review.  JAMA.1994;272:143-146.
Blank RM. The effects of double blind versus single blind reviewing: experimental evidence from the American Economic Review Am Econ Rev.1991;81:1041-1067.
McNutt RA, Evans AT, Fletcher RH, Fletcher SW. The effects of blinding on the quality of peer review.  JAMA.1990;263:1371-1376.
Gale CR, Martyn CN, Cooper C. Cognitive impairment and mortality in a cohort of elderly people.  BMJ.1996;312:608-611.
Nylenna M, Riis P, Karlsson Y. Multiple blinded reviews of the same two manuscripts.  JAMA.1994;272:149-151.
van Rooyen S, Godlee F, Evans S, Black N. What makes a good reviewer and what makes a good review? Paper presented at: Third International Congress on Peer Review in Biomedical Publication; September 17, 1997; Prague, Czech Republic.
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