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New Study Suggest Current Journal Practices are Biased against Female Authors
Virginia Valian's 1999 book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women documented evidence that operating across our society are gender schema, meaning that many of us, frequently unintentionally and without realizing it, undervalue the accomplishments and abilities of women compared to those of men. A new piece of research casts further light on how this unconscious bias affects the practice of peer review in scientific journals, and suggests a strategy for improving the practice to help eliminate such bias.
Peer review is the practice by which the quality of scholarly work and accomplishment is evaluated by those who are best positioned to know the technical details of the work and can evaluate its significance in light of existing knowledge – the peers of the individual whose work is being evaluated. Such review by other scholars in the field is supposed to ensure that only high quality manuscripts are accepted for publication, that limited grants funds are allocated to research with the most potential, and that the best nominee for an award is selected.
In many disciplines, peer review is 'single-blind' meaning the reviewer is aware of the author's identity but not vice versa. However, there is good evidence that knowledge of the author's identify can affect a reviewer's rating of a manuscript or proposal. A study of decisions made by a Swedish funding agency revealed that females needed to be more than twice as productive as males to receive the same competence score (Wenneras and Wold, 1997). The same study also showed that an affiliation with one of the reviewers resulted in a higher assessment.
It seems intuitive that such opportunities for bias can be alleviated with double-blind review methods where neither the author nor the reviewer are aware of the other's identity. However, the extent to which double-blind review is practiced varies by discipline. Now, a new study published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (Budden et al., 2008) provides evidence that many current journal review practices appear to result in bias against female authors. Double-blind reviews are not currently common in the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology.
The study focuses on Behavioral Ecology, a journal that changed its review policy in 2001 from single-blind, where the reviewers of a paper submitted for publication are aware of the author's identity, to double-blind (Budden et al., 2008). In doing so, the journal provided an opportunity to examine the effects of this change on the demographics of authors publishing in the journal.
In the four years following the change in how articles were reviewed, there was a 7.9% increase in the number of female first authors (from 23.7% to 31.6%) representing a 33% growth in the female first author population (Budden et al., 2008). Because the period of data collection extended across nearly ten years, it was possible the change may have resulted from a growth in the numbers of women in the discipline. However, NSF data indicate female ecology graduates increased by just 2.4% across the same period, less than a third of the reported increase in female first authors. Furthermore, Budden and colleagues (2008) analyzed data from a very similar journal that continues to practice single-blind review. That analysis failed to demonstrate a commensurate increase in female authors (25.0% to 26.3%). The same finding was documented across a number of other single-blind ecology journals. The findings suggest that where a peer review process is used, a double-blind process is more desirable, especially whenever there is a discrepancy between the positive reviews and the demographic make-up of the author pool.
Although not directly studied in this piece of research, the study's authors believe that a double-blind review process has important implications for other kinds of authors, including junior and international researchers. Budden et al., (2008) argue that "the consequences of this shift may extend beyond publications. If females are less successful in publishing research on account of their gender, then given the current practices associated with appointment and tenure, and the need for women to dramatically out-compete their male counterparts to be perceived as equal, any such publication bias impedes the progress of women to more advanced professional stages."
Increased work is cited as one of the reasons for not implementing double-blind review in journals. The more compelling issue, however, is whether it makes a difference since peer review is the standard by which quality is measured. In light of this study, it appears that single-blind review may be subject to non-conscious or other biases. Journals and funding agencies need to revisit this question in order to develop a method of evaluation that is neutral across all author groups.
Amber E. Budden, Tom Tregenza, Lonnie W. Aarssen, Julia Koricheva, Roosa Leimu and Christopher J. Lortie (2008) Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors. Trends in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 23: 4-6.
Peer Review. (2008, February 28). In Wikipedia, The free encyclopedia. Retrieved February 28, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_review.
Virginia, V. (1999) Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. MIT Press.
Wenneras, C. and Wold, A. (1997) Nepotism and sexism in peer review. Nature 387, 341-343.