Blind review process can perpetuate discrimination (opinion)

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The blind peer-review process has long been a hallmark of academic research. Blind review ensures that research is evaluated based on the merits of the work, not the individuals who did the work. In theory, this results in better-quality research and mitigates the impacts of bias and gatekeeping in academic publishing. In reality, however, blind review can facilitate the perpetuation of institutional discrimination by turning a blind eye to the identities of those whose work is disseminated and the agendas of their institutions. It is time for academia to rethink the consequences of blind review and create processes to evaluate research that promote the sharing of high-quality work without the unintended consequence of reinforcing legacies of harm.

The pitfalls of blind review became clear to me as I heard from people who attended an event I organized, the Pandemic Pedagogy Research Symposium (PPRS), which took place May 11. Our goal was to bring together research from across the globe on how universities are transforming how they teach by building on innovations from pandemic-era remote and hybrid teaching. In evaluating research proposals, we used a double-blind review process; I sent de-identified submissions to a pool of external reviewers, and they returned reviews anonymously. Each proposal was reviewed by three people, and scores were added together. The final program for the symposium included the 34 proposals with the highest scores.

This seemed like a responsible and time-honored way to ensure that our review process was not affected by implicit bias. In reality, we accepted a submission from a team of authors representing multiple universities with stated policies discriminating against LGBTQ students, faculty and staff. Specifically, the four religious universities represented at our event have formal policies prohibiting students from expressing gay, lesbian, queer or transgender identities. Students and staff members who violate this rule face sanctions including expulsion or termination. The feedback we heard from our attendees reflected the real and profound hurt they felt listening to a talk about innovative teaching from people who represent universities that espouse discriminatory beliefs and practices.

Blind review protects us from making bad decisions due to implicit bias, but it also prevents us from taking active steps to dismantle discrimination and address explicit bias. By keeping individual and institutional identities out of the publication decision, we create spaces for messages that are antithetical to our values.

Blind review also creates a way for people who control spaces for discourse to avoid taking responsibility for making those spaces inclusive. Instead, it is the duty of those of us who govern the dissemination of research to consider the historical impacts of institutional discrimination and take intentional and proactive steps to mitigate it. Unless we are actively antidiscrimination, we are allowing harm to continue.

At a minimum, conference organizers and journal editors need to think about how they can ensure that the work they disseminate is consistent with their values. Researchers have always been evaluated not only by the research they do but by the context in which they do it, from the ethics of their data collection to how they use and cite the work of others. Considering the practices around equity and inclusion at the institutions where they work is a necessary extension of assessing research ethics.

Blind review of submissions should remain the standard for evaluating work, but a final unblinded review should be undertaken to exclude submissions from institutions that are incompatible with the event’s or publication’s stated values. This has the immediate effect of ensuring that our publication outlets do not give voice to institutions that promote discriminatory practices. In the long term, holding researchers accountable for the institutions in which they choose to work can be a catalyst for more significant and impactful change in where research funding goes and where people choose to work.

In the case of PPRS, I should have included a statement in our call for proposals saying that submissions from institutions that intentionally and explicitly discriminate against LGBTQ students and staff members would not be accepted. I also should have vetted the accepted proposals to ensure that they all met this standard. I will do this in the future, and I encourage other organizers and editors to do the same.

There remains a place in the academic publishing process for blind review, but it should be only one part of the process. It is time to accept our responsibility to take active steps to dismantle inequity and discrimination in academic publishing. Moving beyond blind review is one step in that direction.

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