A microbiologist at work.
Image: East Bay AWIS.
A few months ago, a controversy occurred in the blogosphere regarding whether scientific papers whose first author is female are discriminated against during the peer-review process, and the suggestion was to institute double-blind peer review as a way to mitigate this possibility. “Double-blinding” as this is sometimes referred to, is a process where a manuscript that has been submitted to a journal for publication is sent out for peer-review with the authors’ names removed or encoded in some way that prevents the reviewers from learning their gender.
The scientific world suffers from a tremendous gender imbalance that appears to be self-perpetuating since female scientists are doing less well than men and young women are much more likely to leave science than are their male colleagues. So the sciences end up with many more men than women at all ranks after completion of graduate school, especially in positions of power, whether they are established professors sitting on multi-million-dollar research grants, editors of prestigious journals or reviewers of their peers’ research before that work is published in a scientific journal.
In the past, several papers uncovered blatant sexism in the workplace: male scientists benefit from inherent biases when it comes to awarding grants and short-term contracts, in job hunting, promotions, tenure decisions, salary and allotment of the departmental teaching load and lab space, while women are routinely penalized. Additionally, it is thought that there is bias against accepting papers for publication that have women as first authors. If this hypothesis is true, then the proportion of papers published by women should increase more quickly in those journals where the gender of the author is unknown during the peer-review process when compared to those journals where gender is known. One way to ensure this is for editors to institute a change in the peer-review policy such that reviewers cannot know the gender of a paper’s first author. This is a double-blind review, where neither the reviewers of a paper nor the authors of the paper being reviewed know each others’ identities.
Does double-blind review benefit female scientists? After extensive discussion on several blogs, my readers and those who read other blogs finally concluded that more data and further analyses of those data were needed to begin untangling the effect that any well-established scientist (who are nearly all male) is much more likely to be given a “pass” by journal editors or reviewers on any substandard papers that they write, while papers written by younger scientists (that include more women among their ranks), are judged much more harshly, or even rejected outright without peer review due to the first author’s gender (female).
Those additional data have just been published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, so I thought we should take a look at them.
The first question asked was whether female scientists responded to the enactment of a double-blind review policy by submitting more papers to those particular journals. The data analysis by Thomas Webb and his colleagues reveals that the increase in publication of female first author papers is comparable between journals using either single- or double-blind peer review (below);
This analysis was based on a comparison of the data that Webb and his colleagues collected for all complete volumes of Behavioral Ecology (red line) to the data collected for this same journal by Amber Budden and her colleagues (blue line) [DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2007.07.008] during a more limited time period. The vertical line denotes the dividing point between the initiation of double-blind review for the journal Behavioral Ecology in 2001, and the slope of the line reveals that double-blind review has almost no discernible effect on the proportion of published papers by female first-authors, especially when this journal is compared to five other ecology and evolution journals whose peer-review policy did not undergo any change (inset).
But perceptions can affect behavior. Amber Budden and her colleagues respond to Webb and his colleagues by pointing out that behavior (in this situation, the paper submission behavior of female scientists) is strongly influenced by editorial decisions that are made public, such as BE’s move to double-blind peer-review (below);
Their findings show that there was a 7.9% increase increase in papers published by female first authors for Behavioral Ecology (red line) after that journal’s change from single-blind to double-blind peer-review. They also found another journal, Biological Conservation, that exhibited a similar change in gender-based submission statistics, and speculate that this journal that may be using double-blind review, although its editors have not publically announced such a policy change.
So now that we have a little more data, it doesn’t clearly demonstrate that double-blind review has increased the proportion of published female first-author papers, although it is perceived to have this effect, and this perception then affects the number of female first author papers submitted to the journal. But what do you think?
BUDDEN, A., LORTIE, C., TREGENZA, T., AARSSEN, L., KORICHEVA, J., LEIMU, R. (2008). Response to Webb et al.: Double-blind review: accept with minor revisions. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(7), 353-354. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.04.001.
WEBB, T., OHARA, B., FRECKLETON, R. (2008). Does double-blind review benefit female authors? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(7), 351-353. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.03.003.
Gender Differences: Got More Data by Bob O’Hara, one of the authors of the Webb paper.