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I work in the field of organization theory and labour sociology and to this point of my career, I have reviewed about 4-6 papers. I have been asked by a journal to review a paper. The journal's scope is Project Management with contributions from social sciences, business administration, but also construction/civil engineering.

I read the proposed paper and found that the anonymization is inadequate. The author(s) cite preliminary work in plain text and also papers that are currently still in the review process. This allows me to narrow down the authorship to a circle of five people around a PI without doing any intentional research.

While I don't know the scientists and their papers, I think this runs counter to the point of a double-blind review process.

How should this be handled? Should the paper be reviewed normally and the editors be told that the anonymization was inadequate? Or should I refrain from a review altogether?

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    Are you sure you are not jumping the gun? Just because not-yet-published material is cited does not necessarily mean the citing authors are among the cited authors. At least in physics there are often pre-prints, sometimes years in advance of publication. When I was in grad school we would get dozens per week.
    – Dan
    Jan 18 at 2:39
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    In some areas the title itself allows you to narrow the circle of possible authors down to five people. I don't think authors tend to actively pretend they are not who they are. You don't get the names explicitly. That's a reasonable amount of blindness.
    – Džuris
    Jan 18 at 10:02
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    I would just review the paper on its merits and not worry about the authors Jan 18 at 14:53
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    I read the proposed paper and found that the anonymization is inadequate. - Is this just in your opinion or according to the journal's stated policies?
    – Kimball
    Jan 18 at 17:25
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    @Dan but then in Physics single-blind peer review is common so it wouldn't matter anyway
    – Chris H
    Jan 19 at 10:21

5 Answers 5

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Ask the editor that sent you the paper how you should proceed. Give them a synopsis of your concerns. It is really up to the journal how seriously to take possible breaches of double blind protocols.

If you think the knowledge you have would bias your review in any way then you could either reject the review or mention that as well to the editor.

In the short term you might begin a review in case you are asked to continue.

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    I did exactly that. The editor is checking into the paper and decides on how to proceed. Jan 19 at 12:18
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Does the journal really require double-blind peer review?

First, check the journal's requirements. Then, if the journal requires double-blind peer review, contact the journal editor, without doing any review, stating that the paper cannot be reviewed because it's not sufficiently anonymised. It's an editor's duty to require that a paper fulfills the minimum submission requirements, and let them contact the authors for a rejection or a resubmission.

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    It is my understanding that it is the job of the authors to properly anonymize their submission, if they want the advantage of anonymity…. (see for example the instructions to authors here: publishingsupport.iopscience.iop.org/double-anonymous-faqs). Maybe you know differently… Jan 18 at 0:48
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    @AzorAhai-him- I took Zero to mean that it is up to the authors to be anonymous and if they are not it is not the reviewer's problem. Of course - I can see other authors complaining if they feel that the lack of anonymity would lead to inappropriately positive reviews. Jan 18 at 4:42
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    @ZeroTheHero I'm not saying that the editor should anonymise the paper, but it's the editor duty to demand that the authors anonymise it (actually, I think that the editor should even check that the paper had been anonymised before sending it out for review, but maybe this is a too high an expectation).
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jan 18 at 6:09
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    @PonderStibbons: It is well-known that non-anonymized papers by well-known authors tend to get significantly higher reviewer scores. In the current publish-or-perish academic culture that pervades much of academia, many researches have cliques and do not perform reviews objectively.
    – user21820
    Jan 19 at 13:33
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    @user21820 Agreed, from direct experience, and I never suggested otherwise. Jan 19 at 22:15
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Double blind does not mean that the authors and the reviewers must be anonymous. It only means that the Journal does not disclose the names. In particular, the authors can include their names in the text. Moreover, if you feel like it, you can disclose your name to the authors. I know referees (including myself) who have done it. There is nothing illegal about it. If you know that you would accept the paper if it is correct, and you have a question about it, you can ask the authors (although the standard way is to ask the editor to ask the authors).

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    This depends on specific journal policies (and what is usual varies between fields) — some journals/conferences don’t require authors+referees to maintain anonymity, as you say, but others certainly do, while yet others don’t expect any kind of anonymisation of the authors at all.
    – PLL
    Jan 19 at 14:19
  • @PLL: Which journals certainly do? No references in your comment or the linked answer.
    – markvs
    Jan 19 at 14:58
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    Off the top of my head, I don’t know — in my own field (pure maths/theoretical CS), there’s usually no double-blinding at all, so I know it only second-hand from friends/colleagues who’ve told me about such requirements in their fields. But googling briefly, it’s easy to find policies requiring authors to maintain anonymisation, e.g. Elsevier’s Social Science and Medicine: “authors need to ensure that their manuscripts are prepared in a way that does not give away their identity”.
    – PLL
    Jan 19 at 15:29
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I recommend that you proceed with your review as normal (making sure that knowledge of the possible identity of the authors does not affect your evaluation) and add a section in your review that notes the deficiencies in the anonymisation. That will give the editor all the relevant information.

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Inform the editors and ask them how to handle it. This is unlikely a rare situation, and they should have policies how to handle it.

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