How To Get Published in Nature: Try Not To Be Female
If you find yourself in the condition of being unavoidably female, and you aren’t willing to undergo a sex change operation, then your best publication strategy may be to hide the XX affiliation.
The title of a recent publication on this issue is self-explanatory: “Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors” by Budden, Tregenza, Aarssen, Koricheva, Leimu, and Lortie. Sadly, as the authors note, double-blind review is “rarely practised”. If your name screams out “woman”, you may be better off with an initial.
Of course, this is nothing terribly new; just a very nice and thorough documentation of the effect in one journal, Behavioral Ecology. The authors observed a 7.9% increase in female first-authored papers after double-blind review was implemented at BE. That’s an increase three times greater than the increase in female ecology graduates across the same time period of the study. No similar increase was observed in comparable journals that continued with standard review practices. The authors also note that the double-blind review process may eliminate bias against less well-established researchers, where women in the field are concentrated.
This article has been discussed elsewhere in the blogosphere, including over at Grrl’s place and Nature’s Peer-to-Peer blog.
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, as they say. I would like to point out that this bias against women not only affects publishing scientific papers, but it also applies to the review, grading and funding of scientific grants.
Indeed, a 2005 report, Gender Differences in Major Federal External Grant Programs makes just this point. No differences were found at NSF and USDA, but NIH was another story. Even after allowing for all sorts of confounding factors – age, academic degree, institution, grant type, institute, and year – “the gender gap is still 17 percent, which means that women still receive only 83% of what men receive when it comes to grant writing.”
Wenneras and Wold showed that females had to be 2.5 times more productive as male applicants to be judged equally competent in a fellowship competition. Virginia Valian extensively documented how gender influences evaluation in her book Why So Slow?
It’s not like any of this is news. We just keep collecting more and more data delineating how gender influences evaluation – negatively for women, positively for men.
If referees know the authors’ identities, it may leave the latter vulnerable to biases about them or their previous work, their gender, their nationality or their being new to an area of research.
yet goes on to outline reasons for maintaining the status quo:
But the PRC survey supports the contention of Nature and others that identifying authors stimulates referees to ask appropriate questions (for example, differentiating between a muddy technical explanation and poor experimental technique). Knowing author identities also makes it easier to compare the new manuscript with the authors’ previously published work, to ensure that a true advance is being reported. And knowing rather than guessing the identities of authors encourages reviewers to raise potential conflicts of interest to the editors.
I am not clear on the mechanism that transmutes knowing an author’s name to ability to differentiate between “muddy technical explanations” and “poor experimental technique”. What, exactly, about not knowing an author’s name keeps you from being able to differentiate thus? Because you know your buddy Joe would never have poor experimental technique, he’s just a bad writer – but Sally there, we’re pretty sure she screwed up.
And sure, knowing the author’s name makes it easier to compare to their previous work – this is exactly the sort of bias toward established researchers that hurts newcomers, i.e. women who tend to be less-established researchers. I think the question of conflict of interest could be adequately addressed after the review is completed.
On whole, these arguments do not impress me as reasons for avoiding double-blind review. But Peer-to-Peer’s Maxine Clarke goes even farther: she suggests that double-blind review would be more readily accepted by editors only if it “generated more constructive comments in the minds of editors and authors”. How about if it just performed equally well? Clarke acknowledges that this has been shown in studies of 7 medical journals. So what’s keeping editors from adopting double-blind review, which we know would reduce unconscious (and perhaps conscious) bias?
Well, it’s too much extra work. And reviewers can guess authors’ identity in a lot of cases anyway. So why bother? Clarke concludes:
…Nature’s policies over the years have generally moved towards greater transparency. Coupling that with the lack of evidence that double-anonymity is beneficial makes this journal resistant to adopting it as the default refereeing policy any time soon.
WTF? this comes shortly after Clarke says
The one bright light in favour of double-blind peer review is the measured reduction in bias against authors with female first names (shown in numerous studies)…
Well, I guess if it only benefits women it isn’t “beneficial”.
In light of evidence that double-blind review does NOT negatively affect the quality of review, and that it DOES eliminate gender bias, the cry of “greater transparency” sounds hollow.
Since the established powers show themselves unmoved by data detailing gender bias and how it can be avoided, I recommend that you continue your strategy of trying not to be female for the foreseeable future. Initials, not first names, if you want a shot at equitable treatment. Maybe you can put your name on the final, published version of the paper. That’s what Maxine Clarke recommends you do: you bend, because the system won’t.
UPDATE: I forgot to say, hat tip to reader Christina Pikas for alerting me to the Budden article.
Bunny Rock in Zuska’s Garden
Zuska is the kick-ass alter-ego of Suzanne E Franks. When not dispensing Zuska's wisdom, Suzanne can often be found gardening, reading, or having one of her thrice-weekly migraines.
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