Review Blindness

Wonderful as it is, google distorts the peer review process in academia. The blind review process is not blind any more as many referees often find out who the author of a paper is before making a decision on a manuscript.

There are two effects of this, both negative. First, objectivity is lost. It is hard for a referee to avoid being positively biased once it is known that the author of a paper is a well-known academic. Likewise, it is easier to reject a paper from an author of less renown, or from a smaller, lower brand name institution. Even if the referee has all good intentions, and does not intend to be swayed by knowing who the author is, there is a hard-wired bias that occurs, as people prefer to correlate their opinions to that of others. Conformity bias compels each and every one of us, whether we choose to admit it or not. My solution to this is to never try to determine who the author is when reviewing a paper.

The second negative effect comes from a bad collective response to the first negative issue – that is, a growing reticence amongst academics to posting their working papers on web sites. Many academics from smaller schools as well as younger assistant professors have told me that they fear being googled when sending a paper out for review, and as a result do not list the working paper either on their vitae or on their web sites. This is terrible, it simply suppresses the dissemination of ideas. One might argue that eventually good ideas will be published, and this process might even save everyone the bother of reading bad work. But, given the review process is biased in many ways (including the first negative issue above), less common, risky, yet valuable ideas might be lost forever. Hence, we are in a bad equilibrium – no one has any incentive to eschew google. Indeed, when I asked the same young faculty whether they googled author names when refereeing, they all admitted to doing so, even though they feared the practice just as much.

We need to realize that preserving the blind review process is absolutely essential to our profession (though we do have journals where this is not followed as a matter of policy). Each one of us needs to independently avoid googling to discover authors. Let us all have self-confidence in our individual abilities as judges of good work. Not knowing the authors in fact makes life easier, and avoids conflicts in our thoughts. Justice needs to be blind. So pick up your blindfolds and avoid unnecessary biases. Stay in the dark, so that there may be light!


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