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Signed referee reports: a one-year follow-up

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Last January, I decided to start signing my referee reports and wrote a blog post about it. Partly because it felt like something I should do and partly because it was a commitment device to try to useful but critical referee reports without sounding mean. Economics suffers from many ills that it has been trying ...

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Last January, I decided to start signing my referee reports and wrote a blog post about it. Partly because it felt like something I should do and partly because it was a commitment device to try to useful but critical referee reports without sounding mean. Economics suffers from many ills that it has been trying to address, and while mean and overreaching referee reports are not at the top of the list, they are something everyone has experienced and complained about at least once…So, now that I have been signing referee reports for about 15 months, how has it gone?

Last year was not one of my busiest years for refereeing duties and, on average, wrote one referee report per month. I’ll try to view the unavoidably subjective experience from the viewpoints of different actors in the process:

Editors

I sometimes see statements by journal editors on Twitter that they would not allow a referee to sign their reports. This has not been my experience: during the past year, I have refereed for top general interest journals, as well as field journals in development economics and no editor has told me that I cannot do this. There is a possibility that some editors don’t ask me because they somehow know about my practice (if we can glorify the reach of Development Impact for a second), but no issues otherwise. In fact, two well-known editors talked to me about this. One said that they have had referees who had been doing this for years. The other, to whom I was chatting about something unrelated, said that my signed reports caused them to consider whether they want to sign their own referee reports and added that they respected my decision.

Authors

Again, the observable experience has been positive for me. I heard from two separate sets of authors, whose papers were both rejected. Each reached out to me via email thanking for the thoughtful comments, asked for some advice on revisions, explained some issues in response to the reports, and inquired what journal I thought they should submit to next. I responded to their emails and felt good about the process generally. Again, however, for two referee reports I got feedback on, there are about 10 for which I have not. It is possible that there are some authors out there who are not happy with me, perhaps holding a grudge, perhaps even writing nasty anonymous reports for my own submitted papers. I’d like to think, however, that it’s the opposite: even if some of my comments/criticism may have been hard to hear, I hope that the authors appreciated my willingness to put my name along with them and that, at least after some time and reflection, there are no hard feelings. It’s better than thinking about the adversarial equilibrium, where we anonymously snipe at each other. I do hope that there are at least small positive spillover effects of what I am doing…

Myself

It has certainly been nice to not try to hide my identity while writing reports: if I want to cite a paper of mine or someone else’s, I just do. Also, since many people know my views from this blog, it is liberating to get rid of the charade that sometimes happens. I noticed that I am also writing shorter referee reports – perhaps because the marginal, nitpicky comments that I might have included in the past are now not making it past my own editorial process. I try to focus on 1-3 main issues with the paper and provide more detailed suggestions for possible future revisions.

As I tried to make clear in my earlier post and, to some extent, on Twitter, I don’t think of this as a moral stance or as something others should emulate. It’s something I decided to try, and the past 15 months have not provided me any reasons to stop. I am not 100% sure that it is the right thing to do and I do know that there are people who think it is unethical. And, sometimes, I do worry about negative spillovers on my collaborators who may have to deal with particularly vitriolic reports from referees who had the pleasure of receiving one of my signed reports on their own submission. I am close with most of my co-authors and none has complained yet or raised the possibility, but it is something to watch out for.

All in all, signing my reports was fairly straightforward in itself but harder to evaluate – there are too many unobservables. In the meantime, I think I will keep going. If you were considering doing this but were on the fence, maybe this update gives you a reason to jump in or to reject this idea (someone told me that they write a signed report and then delete their name after they’re happy with the product). Whatever you decide to do, good luck...

Berk Ozler
Berk Özler is a senior economist in the Development Research Group, Poverty Cluster. He received his B.Sc. in Mathematics from Bosphorous University in 1991, and his Ph.D in Economics from Cornell University in 2001. After working on poverty and inequality measurement, poverty mapping, and the 2006 Word Development Report on Equity and Development earlier, he decided to combine his interests in cash transfer programs and HIV risks facing young women in Africa by designing a field experiment in Malawi. He has since been involved in a number of cluster-randomized field experiments.

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