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Gender bias in peer-review: the final word? June 1, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science, women.
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It’s a much-quoted argument by advocates of “equal opportunities” in science that scientific papers written by female authors are consistently ranked lower in peer review than those of their male colleagues. Indeed, several studies (Bornmann et al, 2007; Budden et al., 2008; not exclusively in physics & astronomy) have appeared to indicate that women authors don’t fare as well in peer review, be it for papers, grant applications or fellowship proposals. It’s a popular topic of discussion in the “Women in Science” circles as a clear-cut, proven area where discrimination on the basis of gender takes place.

In the current issue of Nature, two authors who previously published conflicting studies on gender bias in peer review, report on their newest results: they sat down together to investigate why their past work showed different results. In 2007, Lutz Bornmann’s meta-analysis of 21 sudies showed a clear difference in the success rate of female and male grant applicants. In 2008, a large primary-research study in grant applications to the Australian Research Council by Oxford professor Herbert Marsh didn’t indicate any bias on the basis of gender at all (Marsh et al, 2008).

In an admirable quest to provide consistency to their methods, they re-examined all the data and extended the meta-analysis and came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t any evidence for systematic gender bias after all. They do note that

[t]he study did, however, reveal very small — but statistically significant — gender differences in favour of men for the 26 sets of results that were for fellowship applications. However, these fellowship results varied greatly between the individual studies within the analysis, indicating that they are not generalizable. (Marsh & Bornmann, Nature 459, 602 (2009))

Read the full story over at Nature, here; the new study will be published in the journal Review of Educational Research. Will this be the final word on the issue? Who knows.

It’s not suprising that Nature is reporting this result. Last year, the magazine itself got some flack for rejecting double-blind peer review, which is widely supported as a way of eliminating bias of all kinds in peer review. Read the 2008 editorial and a long list of comments on Nature’s Peer to Peer blog here. Scientific American published a scathing commentary on Nature’s decision here.

While I’m all in favour of getting more women into science, I think buddy politics and affiliation probably make more of a difference than gender. It would be nice to see a study of bias in peer review based on the authors’ affiliation or country of origin. Does a lone researcher in a developing country get the same deal as a Hubble Fellow or a Cambridge professor? And if single-blind peer review is biased, how do we move away from that? Should we make the system more closed, and move to double-blind peer review where possible, or more open?

Anyone have any opinions on this? Leave a comment!

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Comments»

1. Tom Reding - June 2, 2009

Double blind ftw. Saying it’s ‘more closed’ or ‘more open’ is already assigning emotion to the process, which is what should be avoided. All the reviewers need are the title and body. Nothing else should matter.

Sarah - June 3, 2009

Maybe in that case we shouldn’t call it “double-blind” either. Suggestions?

2. Stephen Serjeant - June 13, 2009

I raise double-blind peer review every now and then with fellow academics and always get the same answer: “You’d be able to guess who it is anyway because it’s a small community. Anyway, information on track record and reputation is useful for peer review.”

I’m not sure what this tells us… But for whatever reason the community is resistant to change. For my own part, I’d want any reforms or innovations to be evidence-based.

3. Stephen Serjeant - June 13, 2009

(2nd attempt at posting this – hope it works this time)

I raise double-blind peer review every now and then with fellow academics and always get the same response: “You’d be able to tell who it is anyway because it’s a small community. Anyway, information on track record and reputation is useful for peer review.”

I’m not sure what this tells us… But there is clearly some resistance in the community. For my part, I’d like any reforms to be evidence-based and any experiments in astronomy to be motivated by evidence in other disciplines.


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