Monday, January 21, 2008

Peer Review and Gender Bias

One of the differences between male and female scientists is that female scientists publish less than their male colleagues. GrrlScientist asks why:

Some people have told me that women do not produce scientific results that are of the same high quality as those produced by men (nor do they write life science blogs as well as men, apparently) and that male reviewers can readily recognize when a woman is the lead (or sole) author of a scientific paper because "women do science differently from men" (whatever that means). Basically, science is still a very sexist community where its female practitioners publish less frequently than men at least partially because of the peer-review system that is in place. I think the commonly used single-blind peer review process is biased against papers whose lead (or sole) author is female, just as the field of science is biased against women in general.
In support of her view that the commonly used single-blind peer review system is biased against women is a study by Amber Budden and colleagues (Budden et al. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23(1):4-6 (2008)). They compared the authorship of papers in Behavior Ecology in 1997-2001 when single-blind peer review was used, to 2001-2005 when double-blind peer review was used.
The team found that after the double-blind review process was initiated in BE, papers written by women were published significantly more often than prior to this change (Figure 1). According to the data, papers written by a female first author showed a 7.9% increase in publication rate in BE while those written by male first authors showed a proportional decrease. This increase in female authorship is three times greater than the reported increase in female graduates in the field of ecology and more closely reflects the population demographics of the field itself, which is 37% female. When the team compared these data against those collected from the other journals with similar impact factors, they found there was no corresponding change in the authors' genders during the same period of time, further bolstering their argument.
Gender bias isn't unique to peer reviewed publications, of course, a similar bias has been seen in grant and job applications.

GrrlScientist argues that changing the peer review process would be a positive step in towards righting gender inequities in the sciences.
Instead of hand-wringing and asking "Why are there so few women in science? Why are they leaving?", it is time for the community to begin reflecting on the behavioral data they are being confronted with. Basically, the scientific community makes it very difficult for women to remain in the sciences, and one way in which they do this is through a demonstrable bias against women in the review process. In my opinion, it would take very little effort for the scientific publishers and granting agencies to change their review policies to incorporate the double-blind process, knowing that women (and scientific progress in general) will greatly benefit.
Using double-blind peer review isn't a perfect solution. Commentor Lorax points out that:
Knowing the authors help me as a reviewer decide if there may be a conflict of interest, the person is independent but came from my lab, the person and I have competed significantly and though this specific manuscript is not overlapping it may have the appearance of bias, etc. Something an editor may not be aware of.
While that is an important point, it seems like it could be largely solved by knowledgeable editors.

Another common argument is that in many fields the community would be familiar enough with the data or types of experiments to guess who had performed the research. I think that that the Budden article addresses that, at least in part, by looking at first authors. Research is more likely to be identified as associated with a particular laboratory rather than an individual first author, especially in fields where multiple-author papers are common.

Retired archaeologist K. Kris Hirst has also posted about the Budden article is not entirely convinced that double-blind review is the best solution:
There is a glass ceiling in science: anyone who has worked in any field of science recognizes how few women are in management positions even today. We've known that for a long time, and so the evidence brought forward by this paper is not deeply shocking. In terms of getting fair publication (not just fair to gender, but as publication on the basis of the merits of the paper itself), I've always believed the answer was to open both sides of the review process, so that reviewers are forced to sign off on their comments. But Budden and her colleagues may have something here.
Hirst's post also links to other information on the peer-review process.

Budden and colleagues are part of ecobias, "an NCEAS working group of ecologists interested in exploring factors which influence the publication of articles in ecology." I It seems unlikely to me that journals will change their editorial policies unless confronted with a large pile of data showing that their policies are harmful, so it will be interesting to see what other studies come out of their group.

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