Artillery Row

Anonymity will not solve unconscious bias

How the double-blind peer review process will hinder scholarly output in the humanities

Academic publishing in the arts is no longer the rigorous, informal process it used to be. Scholarly pitches, indefinite publication, editorial judgement and rejection on academic grounds were commonplace. Not anymore. The name of the academic game is now “double-blind peer review” or DBPR. A denaturing process where all scripts are anonymously submitted online, the editor then passes the script on to two other academics, these peers rate according to a proforma, and then based on this rating, a decision is made on whether to publish.

This well-meaning development is a recipe for less ground-breaking writing

You might think this represents long overdue professionalisation. The academic establishment certainly says so. Their defence of it may start with mantra of a supposed need to neutralise pervasive unconscious bias resulting from race, sex and class. But they will then go on to say that requiring material to be read without any information as to its origin means the elimination of academic or intellectual partiality, with writing assessed objectively on intrinsic merit. Journals will print only what is demonstrably best; knowledge and scholarship will, stripped of distractions and irrelevances, advance at an ever faster and more reliable rate.

This sounds convincing. But not so fast. There is another possible, if contrary, view: this well-meaning development is a recipe for less ground-breaking writing while incentivising a less adventurous and more homogenised scholarly output that won’t even cure problems of academic bias. Let me explain why.

First, DBPR originated in the sciences and maths. There it has a place: new syntheses of an in-demand chemical, a theory of energy fragmentation or a formal proof of the Riemann hypothesis need inspecting and verifying. But things are rather different with arts subjects, such as literature, philosophy, or law. Articles here are often opinionated and speculative and, save where they contain detailed facts or statistics, are frequently unfalsifiable. Close reading by third parties cannot serve the same purpose as in science. Of course writing in arts subjects may be good or bad; but quality frequently depends on much more impressionistic matters – interest, provocativeness, contrariness, for example. Simply sending it with all identifying material removed to two other academics for checking is unlikely to determine much other than whether they like it.

Secondly, the compulsory excision of any indication of who wrote an article, or where they came from, causes its own intellectual problems. Suppose a piece is submitted to a journal devoted to, say, literature or law. Imagine further that it contains seemingly outrageous suggestions thrown out as a kind of challenge to all comers, taking little notice of and drawing little support from previous writings. It makes a difference, or at least it should, whether a piece like this comes from someone from a third-rate university with a previous reputation for ill-considered rants, or from an experienced and respected professor known to be absolutely on top of the subject. In the first case it should be binned. In the second, it should arguably appear in order to see if something comes of it. If referees have to look at it blind, this can’t happen: the piece will almost certainly be rejected. The incentive is clear. However good you are and however interesting your ideas, stick to the safe pieces that will get past deliberately under-informed referees.

Again, ironically the question of authorship may make a vital difference in the case of an article that is not quite top-quality. Was it from the pen of an over-promoted academic with his best years behind him; or from a very young scholar finding her feet in a very competitive institution in which she is highly thought of? Mature judgment indicates rejection in the former case, but might well suggest taking a risk by acceptance in the latter. But that is exactly the kind of decision barred to the referees forced to grope in the dark even though a light could have been made available to them.

The question of authorship may make a vital difference in the case of an article that is not quite top-quality

Thirdly, can we be sure that DBPR does in fact eliminate the effect of academic bias? There are reasons to be very sceptical. For one thing, academics asked to referee articles have their own predilections and inclinations. Indeed, often being less senior than journal editors they are if anything more likely to earnestly to criticise a piece because it does not fit in neatly with their own ideas. When this happens, all we have done is to replace one person’s bias with another’s.

Indeed, it gets worse than this. As Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay rightly point out in Cynical Theories, a number of academic journals have for some time been known precisely because they do have partial acceptance practices: they tend only to print articles that follow the agenda (very often political) of a particular academic coterie. For all its trumpeting, DBPR does nothing whatever to prevent this. Indeed, in a way it makes it easier. All an editor has to do is ensure that the referees he selects agree with him, and he can carry on as he always did. And of course he now has an added advantage: if challenged, he can simply state smugly that there is no problem because his journal employs the latest in robust peer review processes.

In short, despite the intellectual consensus in its favour, there is a respectable contrary argument that in the arts DBPR does little to improve academic writing and on balance may even harm it, while failing to tackle the problems of intellectual bias or even academic chicanery. Of course, there is always the possibility of unconscious bias. But even if you believe that this is a perceptible problem (and that’s a big if), that’s only one side of the coin. You may well think that for other reasons it’s worth taking the risk of allowing scholarship to advance by the exercise of ordinary informed human judgment as to its quality, rather than some arcane process that deliberately imposes an artificial veil of ignorance on those taking the vital decisions.

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