Responding to a proposal to move the journal Political Analysis from double-blind to single-blind reviewing (that is, authors would not know who is reviewing their papers but reviewers would know the authors’ names), Tom Palfrey writes:
I agree with the editors’ recommendation. I have served on quite a few editorial boards of journals with different blinding policies, and have seen no evidence that double blind procedures are a useful way to improve the quality of articles published in a journal. Aside from the obvious administrative nuisance and the fact that authorship anonymity is a thing of the past in our discipline, the theoretical and empirical arguments in both directions lead to an ambiguous conclusion. Also keep in mind that the editors know the identity of the authors (they need to know for practical reasons), their identity is not hidden from authors, and ultimately it is they who make the accept/reject decision, and also lobby their friends and colleagues to submit “their best work” to the journal. Bias at the editorial level is far more likely to affect publication decisions than bias at the referee level, and double blind procedures don’t affect this. One could argue then that perhaps the main thing double blinding does is shift the power over journal content even further from referees and associate editors to editors. It certainly increases the informational asymmetry.
Another point of fact is that the use of double blind procedures in economics and political science shares essentially none of the justifications for it with the other science disciplines from which the idea was borrowed. In these other disciplines, like biology, such procedures exist for different (and good) reasons. Rather than a concern about biasing in favor of well-known versus lesser-known authors, in these other fields it is driven by a concern of bias because of the rat-race competition over a rapidly moving frontier of discovery. Because of the speed at which the frontier is moving, authors of new papers are intensely secretive (almost paranoid) about their work. Results are kept under wrap until the result has been accepted for publication – or in some cases until it is actually published. [Extra, Extra, Read All About It: PNAS article reports that Caltech astronomer Joe Shmoe discovered a new planet three months ago…] Double blind is indeed not a fiction in these disciplines. It is real, and it serves a real purpose. Consider the contrast with our discipline, in which many researchers drool over invitations from top places to present their newest results, even if the paper does not yet exist or is in very rough draft form. Furthermore, financial incentives for bias in these other disciplines are very strong, given the enormous stakes of funding. [Think how much a new telescope costs.] Basically none of the rationales for double blinding in those disciplines applies to political science. One final note. In those disciplines, editors are often “professional” editors. That is, they do not have independent research careers. This may have to do with the potential bias that results from intense competition in disciplines where financial stakes are enormous and the frontier of discovery moves at ‘blinding’ speed.
Tom’s comparison of the different fields was a new point to me and it seems sensible.
I’d also add that I’m baffled by many people’s attitudes toward reviewing articles for journals. As I’ve noted before, I don’t think people make enough of the fact that editing and reviewing journal articles is volunteer work. Everyone’s always getting angry at referees and saying what they should or should not do, but, hey–we’re doing it for free. In this situation, I think it’s important to get the most you can out of all participants.