Policy / Science and Communication

Changing perspectives in peer review: can double-blind peer review remove biases against women, minorities, and young scientists?

As a grad student I often find myself in conversations with colleagues concerning job prospects, diversity, biases in science, and the difficulties of publishing. I’m lucky to be in a very diverse marine science department full of students from all types of backgrounds. We have more female grad students than male grad students around here, but male faculty outnumber females at least 3:1. Why is that? It turns out that there are hiring biases against females in science, and that even female scientists and administrators have them. It turns out that everyone is somewhat bias, and that these biases are essentially unconscious. A recent study in PNAS reveals some interesting details.

source: commons.wikimedia.org

source: commons.wikimedia.org

Do these same biases hold in publishing? In short, yes. A recent paper published in the journal Conservation Biology, by UNC Postdoc (and friend of the blog), Emily Darling, suggests that it is certainly possible. Most academic journals use a single-blind peer review process, where the author submits a paper with their name on it and it is reviewed by a group of anonymous reviewers. Each reviewer provides feedback and decides to accept, reject, or ask for revisions. Keeping the name of the author on the paper during the review process provides an opening for biases to creep in. Big name scientists are likely less affected, as their name generally helps them get published (unless they are a polarizing figure in the field, in which case they may also suffer bias), but young scientists, minorities (including women), and people from other countries (if submitting to a U.S. journal) are all negatively impacted by bias. For these reasons and more, Emily makes the case for looking at double-blind peer review (Note: If you are having trouble viewing articles linked in this post, you should check out my previous post on high impact journals, paywalls, and funding flashy science over good science).  As it turns out, double-blind peer review is being experimented with in high impact journals such as Nature Climate Change and Nature Geosciences, where double-blind is optional (since June 2013) and may be selected by the reviewer. Now, even more journals are considering double-blind peer review. Conservation Biology is considering making it mandatory.

So, what do I think (because that is why you are here, right? 😉 )?

I think I don’t really appreciate feeling like this guy:

cource: cplong.com

cource: cplong.com

Or, even worse….

This guy. Constantly chased by the all seeing eye of a semi-anonymous entity hiding behind a face of power.

This guy (forums.sherdog.com) (Thank you internet)

(Thank you internet)

While I don’t think the current peer review is as bad as carrying the ring of power through Mordor, I do think double-blind peer review is a great idea. Reviewers are able to be completely anonymous (unless an author can identify a reviewer based on feedback or writing style), so why should authors not be? In many fields it is difficult not to hold a bias against (or for) an author based on previous research, collaborations, names of co-authors, etc… The entire process is loaded with biases, so why not try to remove some of them? Should we be judging new research based partially on name and previous work, or should we be examining it objectively for what it is? I lean towards the later. A well established researcher can write a poor paper just as easily as a no-name student can write a great one. Every deserves a chance to get published (and to seek publication in high-impact journals). Publications are one of the best ways to move a career forward. I would like to see more journals try making double-blind peer review at least an option. It’s time to break down some barriers and get new blood into the sciences, and not just new, white, male blood. Diversity is part of what makes my department great and new and diverse perspectives will only improve the scientific process. I for one, am all for that. We need all the help we can get.


4 thoughts on “Changing perspectives in peer review: can double-blind peer review remove biases against women, minorities, and young scientists?

  1. Pingback: Two steps forward and one step back: Philae and #shirtstorm | UNder the C

  2. Pingback: Two steps forward and one step back: Philae and #shirtstorm | Justin Baumann, MS

  3. Pingback: Sexism (and racism) in science: How do we make it go away? | UNder the C

  4. Pingback: Sexism (and racism) in science: How do we make it go away? | Justin Baumann, MS

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