When good intentions collide: double-blind peer review vs preprints

Papers get rejected all the time. Desk rejections are a different breed. “Out of the scope”, “no interest”, “we just had a similar paper like this”, “not interested”… I heard it all. In fact, I like desk rejections – it allows you to move on and find a better, or at least a different platform, platform for your work. But the desk rejection I got today is different:

The easy availability and promotion of the preprint mean that our practice of blinded peer review is not possible for your manuscript.

Quote from a desk rejection email

The email had comments, further explaining the desk rejection, but that is not relevant for this blog-post. It also doesn’t matter which journal rejected which preprint, and it doesn’t matter who was the editor. The evidence / merits / consequences of double-blind peer review also do not matter to be honest, because, in essence, it is just a fact – a preprint excludes double-blind peer review.

I have two observations on this:

First, if a journal wants to have double-blind peer review as part of its procedures, then one might conclude that it is their prerogative. “You do you”, and what not. The problem is that the scientific enterprise doesn’t work if all individuals just started to do things their own way. There has to be some commonality, a common way of approaching the idea when we think about what it means “to do science”. All the variations in the publishing and peer review system (preprints, registered reports, post-publication peer review, blinded, optionally open, mandatory open). I know that innovation require (temporal) variation and failures, but one thing is sure, .it doesn’t get simpler.

Second, is blind peer review even possible anymore? Preprints are an obvious problem, but more and more snippets of our research can be found online. For example: post-COVID conferences are now more and more online, preregistration of projects exist and should be findable, and might be linked to FAIR databases.

These observations are not new, and definitely not just mine, as they were in part inspired by this nice little exchange on Twitter. Nonetheless, they do make me wonder – when do we all know enough to shift from one older way to do science to a newer way to do science?

PS, after the desk rejection, I exchanged some emails with the editor where we both were looking if and how the issue even could be solved if we wanted to. The jury is still out if we are going to resubmit, also because there were more relevant points and comments. But the desk rejection gave me the lesson that good intentions sometimes collide – a very relevant lesson in an ever-changing research enterprise.