Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect how we perceive others; they sometimes run contrary to our conscious beliefs. Employers and law enforcement officers have faced criticism about implicit bias in the hiring of new employees and arresting of potential criminals. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the organization that publishesScience magazine, recently looked into*the role of implicit biases in the scientific review processes.
The issue of implicit bias in the peer review process is significant because a strong publication record is critical to success in most science and engineering fields. Bias in the grant review process may determine which scientists are able to continue working in their field. If some groups of people are less likely to publish and get funding, then the professional sphere of science will remain more homogeneous.
This is problematic because diverse groups tend to be more creative and innovative. If the peer review process is preventing science from becoming as diverse, then innovation is likely being held back as well.
At the AAAS forum, journal editors presented evidence of a US-centric bias in scientific publication. Countries with fewer resources tend to be poorly represented among reviewers, and therefore may receive less attention from publishers. The editors also showed that, even though some Asian countries submit a large number of manuscripts for consideration, they tend to be underrepresented in terms of successful publications. Publications appear to be somewhat better in terms of gender-related biases in publication rates, yet women are still poorly represented among journal editors and peer reviewers.
When it comes to grant applications, an investigation by the Governmental Accountability Office found that some federal agencies report no bias in the funding received by men and women, though there isn’t enough data on other federal funding sources. However, at least for the National Science Foundation (NSF), one of the most important sources of federal science funding, only a quarter of all applications for funding come from women in the first place. Increasing the numbers of women who apply for federal funding remains elusive.
But that's great compared to minorities. Black scientists in the US submit only two percent of all NSF grants, and only eighteen percent of those applications are successful. The NIH, another major source of federal funding, reports that black researchers receive awards at half the rate of whites, so racial disparities persist across funding agencies. In terms of the peer review process, studies have shown that black scientists are held to higher standards than whites, and this adversely affects their publication rates.
Obviously, policy favors neutrality in terms of geographic, racial, and gender differences, and reviewers are probably not trying to foster disparity. This implies that implicit bias is a huge problem.
But it’s also a challenging one to address. Though people can receive training to reduce implicit bias, the effects of this training tends to be short lived—most people will return to their baseline behavior after a bit of time. Making reviewers more aware of the neuroscience behind implicit bias doesn’t actually help reduce bias; in fact, it can have the opposite effect, causing reviewers to believe that bias is inevitable.
So, this problem isn’t one that we are likely to solve at the individual level, which means that structural interventions might be more effective. The recruitment of more diverse grant and journal reviewers could be a positive start. Implementing blind review processes, in which the reviewers don’t know the applicant’s names or gender, could also help.