Double-Blind Peer Review Isn't Enough: How to Combat Gender Bias in Academic Publishing

June 26, 2018 Debbie Chachra



My academic background is in science and engineering, and double-blind peer review is the norm for my academic papers. It’s rightly regarded as the gold standard, and is a key element in the global enterprise that is scientific and scholarly research. But journals are only a small part of the ecosystem of scholarly research.

It’s well understood that women have historically been excluded from scholarly endeavors (together with many other groups, including indigenous people, people of color, and people who don’t fit neatly into the standard boxes for gender and orientation). This exclusion has been exacerbated by erasure, where their contributions have been written out of the scholarly record. For every Marie Curie, there are an unknown number of women whose scientific contributions were subsumed into their husbands’ work. Jocelyn Bell (Burnell) discovered pulsars as a graduate student; her male advisor and another astronomer received the Nobel Prize.

The repercussions of this exclusion and erasure are carried through to the present day, manifesting as implicit bias in many areas of professional life, not just in science. While few structural barriers exist for women, these unconsidered biases have marked effects on their career trajectories, as detailed by Virginia Valian in her book Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. Women are less likely to give colloquia talks. They often need to do more work to be considered as successful as their male peers. And while much of the data concerns binary gender, there is every reason to expect that members of other underrepresented groups are facing similar challenges. Erasure, exclusion, and implicit bias mutually reinforce each other. And this doesn’t even consider the effects of gender-based harassment and its impact, including how it affects women engaged in scientific fieldwork.

What’s more, peer review is not a panacea. There’s evidence that women are held to higher standards in their writing and so their papers spend longer in peer review. And, women are given less professional credit for multiauthor papers, including papers being attributed solely to male co-authors by the media.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) provides guidance to grant proposal reviewers on overcoming implicit bias, and they note that it’s exacerbated by lack of information, stress from competing tasks, or time pressure. It shouldn’t be surprising that it takes significant conscious effort to overcome centuries of exclusion and its consequences. This is not just an issue of fairness for the scholars (although that is certainly a serious issue). We are involved in research and scholarship because we want to contribute to the tremendous edifice that is shared human knowledge. This means we need to confront our own implicit biases and do the active work of engaging with this history, and the people most affected by it.

In line with those NSF guidelines, the first step in doing better is to allot appropriate time and care to reviewing papers, especially those by groups that have been historically underrepresented in science and the academy. Help counter ongoing bias by inviting more women to referee journal articles. Consider instituting a code of conduct for authors. For scientific research on humans, consider the research subjects: is the effect of gender properly assessed? And finally, consciously work to create a welcoming research environment wherever you are.

Initialized names in black and white on the printed page appear neutral and objective. But those names reflect centuries of history. It’s the responsibility of all of us to change the future.

On June 22, 2018 Debbie Chachra spoke about combatting bias in publishing at the Wiley Society Executive Seminar in Washington DC. You can learn more about Society Executive Seminars and request an invitation to future events at

About the author:

Debbie Chachra is a professor at Olin College of Engineering, where she was one of the early faculty. The first class at Olin College graduated in 2006; the college was founded to catalyze change in undergraduate engineering education, and is distinguished by its experimental student-centered teaching approaches and by a commitment to gender equity (by design, the college has gender parity in each class). Dr. Chachra researches the engineering student experience, and she speaks, writes, and consults for engineering educators worldwide. Her research has been funded by an NSF CAREER grant and recognized with other awards. She also writes and speaks more broadly at intersections of design, technology, and culture, including credits at The Atlantic and Nature. Her disciplinary background is in materials science and engineering, with a focus on biological systems; prior to joining Olin College, she held a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Toronto. On Twitter, she is @debcha.

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