Think You're Bias-free? Think Again.

July 20, 2018 The Wiley Network

In June 2018, I attended my first Wiley Society Executive Seminar in Washington DC. If you haven’t yet attended a Society Executive Seminar and you have the opportunity, plan on doing so. It will be worth your while. Our journal publishing world is small enough that you can get to know your peers well over the course of your career – whatever stage you’re in. I especially appreciated the cocktail hour (or two) at the Seminar. Over a glass of wine, I was chatting away with new peers and learning how they manage their journals. It was nice to hear that we are all in the proverbial “same boat” – our journals and societies are indeed unique, but our professional experiences are shared. Our wins and our challenges are as well!


Every speaker at the Seminar hit home, but Debbie Chachra’s presentation especially, entitled “Bias in Scholarly Research,” gave me a lot to think about. Debbie is a Professor of Engineering at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts.

I was completely enthralled by her talk. Not only is she an engaging speaker, but she talked about bias – something I thought I was free of. I didn’t think I operated with any biases. I thought I was pretty enlightened. Well, I’m not, and recognizing this was my first step to becoming closer to bias-free.

Bias is not an easy topic to talk about because most of us think we are immune to it. Debbie opened her presentation by saying: “People are at the heart of research.” Sounds obvious enough, right? But it also means that there are inherent biases in research, just as individual people are never immune from their own preconceptions.

I like the way Šimundić defines bias as “any trend or deviation from the truth in data collection, data analysis, interpretation and publication which can cause false conclusions. ”There are many types of biases, including bias in data collection and in publication.

I work as Managing Editor at a national society journal. In my position, I am task-oriented and feel very accomplished when I can check off the items on my to-do list. I can confidently say that many of you are probably like this, too. The hard work comes when we drill down to the content and context of the research we are processing, and that work includes uncovering implicit biases – and they are always present.

Check your personal bias

Debbie encouraged us to take this implicit bias assessment. Register for Project Implicit and take the test. The results can be hard to digest, but it’s important to know where your blind spots are, especially when it comes to sex and gender.

As managing editor, I have a duty to call out the default non-inclusive language that exists in journal publishing today. Language and research that excludes more than half of the world’s population is detrimental to public health. Also, considering the diversity of gender identities and the reality of the biological differences between men and women, the focus on gender- and sex-positive research reporting is more important than ever.

Some questions to consider when evaluating research for bias include:

  • How is gender or sex differentiated?
  • Are the authors taking sex (biological determinant) and gender (social determinant) into account?
  • How can journals incorporate sex and gender into their publication policies?

What can you do about bias?

Language is important. In the case of health science, how research is communicated in journals affects the way medicine is practiced. Those of us in the journal publishing industry have a duty to ensure that language is inclusive – for men and women and everyone in between. Not taking into account sex and gender differences in health research exacerbates health inequities. Journal publishers, editors, universities and other stakeholders have an obligation to address this inequity.  Debbie outlined three laws of inclusion:

  1. It’s a lot of work – engage actively
  2. You can never stop doing it
  3. You will definitely mess it up.

In confronting our biases, we need to be honest with ourselves – and check our egos and judgements at the door. We’ll make mistakes, but we should use them as learning cues, move on, and try again. Personally, I’m now planning to factor a sex and gender component into research and the peer-review process by incorporating the SAGER Guidelines for our authors and peer-reviewers.

Wiley, thanks for inviting us in Canada from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada to the event! We’ll see you next year!

Josephine E. Sciortino is Managing Editor for the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada (JOGC) for the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC).

Check out Debbie Chachra’s recent post Double-Blind Peer Review Isn’t Enough: How to Combat Gender Bias in Academic Publishing.

Image credit: Andrew Sariti


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