I have just read Dave Lunt’s text on Anonymous peer review, and I can only second every word he writes. I consider reviewer anonymity as essential for giving me the freedom of saying things that have to be said. Like David, I would never dare telling a person I know very well that their latest manuscript is essentially rubbish. Without any doubt, my case history as a reviewer would have severly limited my chances of later collaboration. Even very good scientists can sometimes submit very bad manuscripts.
The other side of the coin, giving ‘rogue reviewers’ the chance to hide behind anonymity has to be addressed, although I would rather see this happen without compromising anonymity. I even have an idea how this could be done. I am sure that some clever people have proposed this before. I wouldn’t even exclude that some (other) clever people have given the idea due consideration and found out that it is not going to work. Anyway, this is my suggestion: Journals publishing peer-reviewed research should have a formalized ‘court of appeal’. The authors should have the possibility to do something about reviewer reports that are way off the mark, be it due to hostility, incompetence, or laziness of the reviewer. Obviously, safeguards have to be established that prevent authors from complaining about every negative review they get. However, authors with justified complaints must be guaranteed that some knowledgeable and unbiased person sees to their case. In an ideal situation, the board of appeal could not only overturn the original judgement, but also do something about egregious cases of flawed reviews – something that would actually hurt the reviewer (no, I am not thinking of high voltage here).
Already now, it is possible to complain with the editor about reviewer’s misjudgements, at least at some journals (generally the better ones). However, unless you know the editor in person, or are a big shot working in the right place, your chances of getting the editor to even look at your case are slim. Given that nobody likes getting a bad review and is likely to find the criticism unjustified, the lack of enthusiasm on the editors side to deal with complaints is understandable. However, there are really some bad bad reviewers out there, and something has to be done about this problem. Nowadays, when more and more journals are charging the authors rather than the reader, the paying ‘customer’ should at least have the right to be treated in a fair and transparent manner.
Probably, the two weakest points in my proposal are i) the increased work load put upon the editor(ial board), and ii) the lack of adequate sanctions that can be imposed on bad reviewers. After all, we have to keep in mind that reviewers are not paid for their job, and every action that risks scaring away the good guys is out of question. Maybe, in the more severe and unambiguous cases, at least a stern letter from the editor to the reviewer, mentioning the flaws uncovered during the appeal process, would be indicated. This action would not destroy the career of a bad reviewer, but might nudge him/her back on track.