Editorials: To sign or not?

Only a few major journals continue to print anonymous editorials representing a publication's point of view. Most opt instead to run articles signed by staff or outside experts -- and many in the scientific, medical and publishing communities say that's a good thing. Image: Guillaume Carels via Wikimedia CommonsNewspapers across the globe are known for taking political stances, with anonymously authored pieces spreading a publication's point of view across its editorial pages. Major scientific

Aug 26, 2010
Bob Grant
Only a few major journals continue to print anonymous editorials representing a publication's point of view. Most opt instead to run articles signed by staff or outside experts -- and many in the scientific, medical and publishing communities say that's a good thing.
Image: Guillaume Carels via Wikimedia Commons
Newspapers across the globe are known for taking political stances, with anonymously authored pieces spreading a publication's point of view across its editorial pages. Major scientific and medical journals have been moving away from the practice, but there are some hold outs -- such as __Nature__ and __The Lancet__ -- that continue to print unsigned editorials. linkurl:Caleb Alexander,;http://alexander.uchicago.edu/ pharmacoepidemiologist and general internist at the University of Chicago, coauthored an linkurl:opinion piece;http://chestjournal.chestpubs.org/content/129/6/1395.2.full in a 2006 issue of the journal __CHEST__ entitled, "Should Editorials in Peer-Reviewed Journals Be Signed?" His conclusion: it's probably a good idea. "I think there's been a real push towards greater transparency in the process of peer review and this extends to editorials published in the journals themselves," Alexander told __The Scientist__. He lists a few dangers involved with running unsigned editorials, including the potential for anonymous authors, free from the bonds of accountability, to heap on praise or criticism and the tendency for readers to assign undue authority to an unsigned editorial -- an impression that might be moderated by naming exactly who prepared the piece. "I think requiring authors to sign what they write is an important step in greater transparency and improving the rigor and quality of the scientific enterprise." linkurl:Richard Smith,;http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hQ8gyb5NCxw former editor of __BMJ__, agreed. "My view is that a scholarly medical journal's perspective ought to represent the history and tradition of medical science, and you ought to sign your piece," he told __The Scientist__. linkurl:Philip Campbell,;http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/campbell.html editor-in-chief of __Nature__, told __The Scientist__ that the journal has run unsigned editorials for its 140-year history, and has no plans to stop. "Editorials in __Nature__ have always been unsigned. It is my policy to continue this tradition," Campbell wrote in an email. "They represent 'the voice of the publication.'" Specifically, unsigned editorials help the journal maintain "a consistent support for the values of science: the dependence on evidence, integrity of process, transparency as far as possible and critical-mindedness." Spokespeople at __The Lancet__ declined to comment on the journal's policy of publishing unsigned editorials. The journal recently fired one of its senior editors, linkurl:Rhona MacDonald,;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57450/ after she vociferously complained that the final edited version of an unsigned editorial she wrote was substantially changed without her blessing. One journal, the __Canadian Medical Association Journal__ (__CMAJ__), recently made the switch, and began signing its editorials. linkurl:Paul Hebert,;http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/176/1/24 the journal's editor-in-chief, told __The Scientist__ that __CMAJ__ changed its policy after his predecessor linkurl:John Hoey was fired;http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2006/02/21/cmaj060221.html in 2006 following a dust up over editorial independence at the journal. In an unsigned 2006 linkurl:editorial,;http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/174/1/9 Hoey criticized the journal's publisher, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), for allegedly interfering with __CMAJ__ reporters writing a story about the prescription of over-the-counter emergency contraception in Canada. Hebert took the reigns at __CMAJ__ after the CMA convened an international panel to reconsider the remit of the journal. That process included reassessing the practice of publishing unsigned editorials, Hebert said. "The message we'd be sending is that we're hiding behind the reputation of the journal," he said. "In the public's eye these days, transparency of views has become a huge issue." When Richard Smith started working at __BMJ__ in the late 1970s, the journal ran unsigned editorials, but changed its policy in the mid 1980s. "I found [writing an editorial] much easier when I began to sign it, because then I could be more honest," Smith told __The Scientist__. "This is not only about credit, it's about accountability." __Science__ similarly publishes a variety of signed editorials from journal staff and guest authors. A statement on the journal's linkurl:masthead;http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/issue_pdf/masthead_pdf/329/5994.pdf says the journal serves as a forum for "important issues" in science, "including the presentation of minority or conflicting points of view, rather than by publishing only material on which a consensus has been reached," the statement reads. "Accordingly all articles published in __Science__ -- including editorials, news and comment, and book reviews -- are signed and reflect the individual views of the authors and not official points of view adopted by AAAS or the institutions with which the authors are affiliated." "I think the statement pretty well speaks for itself," Kathleen Wren, spokesperson for __Science__'s publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), wrote in an email to __The Scientist__. One journal, __PLoS Medicine__, seems to employ a hybrid strategy: Editorials in that journal are signed with a byline of "The __PLoS Medicine__ Editors," but lists later in the piece the individual members of the editorial staff who contributed, and the nature of each person's contribution. (See an example of the way __PLoS Medicine__ "signs" their editorials here.) Listing the journal as the author gives the piece an extra credibility, __PLoS Medicine__ Editor-in-Chief linkurl:Ginny Barbour;http://www.plos.org/about/people/medicine.php told __The Scientist__. "I think it's very clear that the journal is standing behind whatever we publish," she said. "It actually gives an extra degree of weight." But it's also not anonymous, she added. "When we write an editorial and all sign it, we're basically saying that we agree with the content of the editorial," Barbour continued. "I think it's very important to document who are the people who participate in the writing of a particular editorial at a particular time." **__Related stories:__***linkurl:Senior __Lancet__ editor sacked;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57450/
[26th May 2010]*linkurl:CMAJ loses most of its Editorial Board;http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23234/
[16th March 2006]*linkurl:Untitled and Anonymous Editorials And Other Forms of Provincialism;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/18246/
[12th October 1998]