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Does Anonymity Improve Science?

The Daily Scan recently brought you the blogosphere's reaction to a new website called The Third Reviewer, which allows members of the scientific community to comment — anonymously, if they wish — on published scientific literature. DrugMonkey was among the bloggers who thought it was a great idea because anonymous commenting could allow researchers to be honest about the work of others without fearing they'd be attacked. Zen Faulkes as NeuroDojo completely disagreed. "Has science become that much like the mob?" Faulkes asks. "Are we as a group that thin-skinned, petty and vindictive that we're going to put out a hit someone's grant or whack another scientist's pub because they didn't think we used the right statistical test?" Besides, he adds, the history of researchers commenting on papers is "not encouraging." Many papers on PLoS One, which has a star rating system that is also anonymous, aren't even rated.

But DrugMonkey says Faulkes is just "not getting the point." To Faulkes' point that anonymous commenting doesn't encourage discussion, DrugMonkey says that's not true, and that there's evidence of more robust discussion when anonymous commenting is allowed. "The point, my dear Zen, is not so much whether it is a good or bad thing that people fear career reprisals for what should be our stock in trade. The question is whether they indeed fear such reprisals (with justification or not) and whether that fear keeps them from engaging in a desirable behavior, i.e., open discussion of papers and data," DrugMonkey says. The Third Reviewer, he adds, bypasses that fear.

But Faulkes isn't convinced. Scientists who fear reprisals want two things, he says: publication in high-profile journals and grants. But the journal model is changing, he says, and the changes diminish the fear of reprisals. Many more new journals are opening up for researchers to publish in, and "it’s unreasonably to think a rival can block them all," Faulkes says. As for grants, he adds, the answer could be force more transparency and accountability into the peer review process to avoid problems. Reviewing anonymously, Faulkes says, isn't the answer.

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