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Seeing Through Blind Review

The concept of a double-blind experiment has a long history in medical research. The primary purpose has been the insure that the researchers and the subjects in the research are unaware who is receiving a treatment and who is not. For example, if a new alternative to aspirin is being tested as a pain reliever, the research would involve using the new drug and a pill that is not a medicinal drug at all (e.g., a sugar pill). Some of the subjects would receive the new drug, while other subjects would receive the sugar pill (also known as a placebo). In this design, neither the researchers nor the subjects would know who is receiving the sugar pill and who is receiving the experimental drug. Such a design is meant to prevent the influence of knowing which pill a subject is receiving. Presumably, a subject may feel some pain relief if he/she knows they are getting the experimental drug or may think they are not getting any relief at all if they are receiving the sugar pill. The same would be true for the researchers having biased interpretations of whether a subject’s pain was subsiding. It is not uncommon for the intent of the double-blind experiment to be circumvented if researchers and subjects inappropriately assume certain individuals are receiving the experimental drug and other individuals are not.

A form of the double-blind concept has been evident for many years in the peer review of manuscripts for refereed science education journals, as well as in the professional journals of most disciplines (Blank, 1991). The Journal of Science Teacher Education has always followed a double blind review process. Succinctly, reviewers of manuscripts do not know the identity of the author(s) and the author(s) do not know the identity of the reviewers. There are journals that will allow the author to know the identity of the reviewers, if the reviewers consent to have their identities known. However, human nature being what it is, reviewers frequently infer whose manuscript they are reading, either because of the topic of investigation or from certain cues found in the manuscript (Hill & Provost, 2003). Such cues may include location of the study (e.g., “large Midwestern university,” country of origin outside the U.S., or the spelling of certain words that differ from one continent to another). Norman Lederman is old enough to remember reviewing manuscripts during the pre-electronic age, when manuscripts were physically mailed to reviewers. He always knew he was reading a manuscript from an international author (i.e., outside North America) if the paper was printed on A4 (i.e., similar to legal size in dimensions) paper. In any case, the reviewer could only infer whose manuscript he/she was reading and would never know for sure.

In terms of authors knowing their reviewers, many of us still tell our doctoral students to “know your reviewers.” That is, we tell our PhD students to look carefully at the Editorial Board of the journal to which they are submitting. Indeed, sometimes decisions on where to send a manuscript is based on the membership of the Editorial Board or the Editorial Reviewers (if their names are published). Additionally, often a reviewer adheres to a different theoretical framework than the author and this difference is evident in the reviewer’s comments. Again, authors can only infer and they do not know the reviewers of their manuscript with any certainty. In either of the cases discussed, the system of blind review has conventions in place to protect the names of authors and reviewers, but the system is not perfect, nor can it be.

In recent years, there has been a trend (or two trends) that has resulted in manuscript requirements for anonymity (primarily of authors) becoming more “conservative” or more “moderate,” for lack of better words (Campanario, 1998a, 1998b). These two approaches to “maintaining” anonymity of authors, and adhering to the intent of the double-blind concept are interesting, but neither is perfect, and in some instances quite awkward and cumbersome.

The Conservative Approach

In this approach, in addition to the typical ways of maintaining anonymity (e.g., having your name listed under the title of the manuscript) authors are prohibited from including any citations that include their names. We say prohibited because journal manuscripts and conference proposals are sent back to authors for removal of any self-citations. In all cases, the citation must be written as “author” in both the text of the manuscript, as well as in the reference list. Naturally, in the reference list, the title and location of the source cited is also omitted because curious reviewers can track down the name of the author if they know the title and/or journal citation. We are not saying that we or anyone we know would do this, but we know there are individuals who can’t resist the temptation. By the way, it is important to note that, although this approach is stated as being consistent with Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2010), the policy of not allowing an author’s name to appear in any form within a manuscript is not listed in the APA Publication Guidelines.

The Moderate Approach

This approach does allow an author to cite his/her own work by name, as long as the citation does not clearly indicate to the reviewer that the work being cited is the manuscript author’s own work. For example, in a manuscript that we may be writing, it would be acceptable for us to say, “the findings of this investigation are consistent with those reported by Lederman and Lederman (2013).” And accordingly, all the details of the citation could be included in the reference list. In this example, it would not be clear to the reviewer that we were the authors of the manuscript. The reviewer could infer that we are the authors, but it is just as likely that another researcher has conducted a study that had results consistent with ours and is merely citing our research to add support to the current findings. Alternatively, if we wrote, “the results of this investigation were consistent with our previous work with second grade students (Lederman & Lederman, 2013),” it would be quite clear to a reviewer that we are the authors of the manuscript under review. This second case would requite that we use “author” instead of our names in either the “conservative” or “moderate” approach.

Quo Vadis?

Recently, some research journals in science education and other areas of education have moved to what could be called the “moderate” approach (our terminology) from a previously more “conservative” approach. The rationale was that reviewers could figure out who manuscript authors were in many cases and the “conservative” approach did not accomplish its goal of total anonymity (Cox, Gleser, Perlman, Reid, & Roeder, 1993). Many of our colleagues have been unhappy about this change because they thought more “moderate” meant that reviewers would know the name of the author and that this approach would be inconsistent with APA guidelines (APA, 2010). This is not the case, but it does indicate that there is currently some confusion in our community about what the “moderate” approach actually entails. It does not mean that the reviewers are given the names of the manuscript author.

The Journal of Science Teacher Education (JSTE) currently follows the “moderate” approach, but this has not always been the case. Indeed, we would argue that the “conservative” form may actually erode the anonymity of manuscript authors as opposed to ensuring anonymity (Blank, 1991; Hill & Provost, 2003). As the title of this editorial states, the “conservative” approach may truly be a case of seeing through blind review. In addition, it may cause a manuscript to be rejected inappropriately. Forgive us in advance for using ourselves in a hypothetical example. Suppose you are reviewing an article on nature of science (NOS), written solely by us or by us and a few of our colleagues. In the “conservative” approach, we would not be allowed to cite any of our previous work in any direct way. A reviewer might read the manuscript and see “author” so many times that it would probably be obvious who the authors might be. Alternatively, the reviewer might read the manuscript on NOS and be very surprised by the lack of references to Lederman and colleagues. The reviewer might be overly critical of the author for not being familiar with the literature and might erroneously reject the manuscript. The research community related to NOS is relatively small, and so is the science education community. We contend that the hypothetical example we have posed could quite possibly occur with one of our manuscripts, or possibly one that you have written in your specialty area. Indeed, in an actual example, a reviewer of one of our manuscripts actually suggested that we carefully read the research by Lederman and colleagues because he/she was concerned that we may not be completely aware of the existing literature on NOS! In this particular situation we resorted to using “author” because of the journal’s style conventions.

The intent of blind review has always been the preservation of anonymity and we feel it is best preserved through the “moderate” approach, rather than the “conservative” approach. The goal is for manuscripts to be reviewed as fairly and in as unbiased manner as is humanly possible. There is nothing that can totally protect any of us from human nature and the inappropriately curious reviewer. However, we strongly feel that the “moderate” approach is the provides the fairest approach for the authors of JSTE or any other research journal.


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Author I, Author II Seeing Through Blind Review. J Sci Teacher Educ 25, 861–864 (2014).

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