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Monday, September 17, 2007

On Refereeing Practices

There is an interesting discussion of one of the issues addressed in Sally Haslanger's piece Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone) over at Feminist Philosophers. The issue is that of why so few female philsophers publish in mainstream journals. Following Haslanger, Jender suggests that part of the reason may be that there is an implicit bias against women, and that blind refereeing and editing, therefore, are mandatory. Blind refereeing and editing do seem preferable to non-blind refereeing and editing. But it's not going to overcome all biases. Very many philosophers put their work online. And it's hard to see what would become of the field if no one did that. But I bet very few referees can resist googling the title or first line of a manuscript before making their final recommendation to the editors (or maybe even before reading the manuscript). Even so, blind refeering is a good thing. At least it is then up to the author to decide how blind he or she wants the refereeing to be. As for blind editing, I think there is much to be said for that too. However, I also think editors are likely to be less biased than referees. My feeling is that editors give a lot of weight to the referees' reports. Editors can, of course, give a lot of weight to the referees' reports and still affect the final decision dramatically. Some referees are notoriously hard to satisfy, others exceedingly easy. An editor could decide to send manuscripts by unknown authors or on "exotic" topics such as feminism to referees which are hard to satisfy. If anything like that ever happens, then blind editing of course won't be the miracle cure for biases against women. It could perhaps help the young and unknowns, but it wouldn't help those writing on less mainstream topics.


Jender said...

I agree that editors are probably pretty deferential to referees. However, at some top journals 70-90% of submissions are rejected by the editor without ever being seen by referees, and this is what really makes me think we need anonymous editing.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Jender
I agree that that is a huge problem. And a good reason for blind editing. My point was just that it might not help people writing on less mainstream topics, for the subject-matter of the article will be obvious to potentially biased editors.

Anyway, your post seems to be making an impact. The editors of Synthese told me that they are now considering blind editing and will make a decision soon. In addition to gender bias, the other motivation would be to eliminate irrelevant prestige effects, affiliation etc.

mvr said...

FWIW, I think that most referees resist googling before returning comments. I know I have, and I've learned also to resist Googling even after returning comments, since manuscripts sometime come back to review again. It really isn't that hard to keep oneself from doing this, and I suspect that most referees are able to see the inherent conflict in trying to find out an author before returning a report.

Too much cynicism can actually keep us from trying to do better. Many writers are very careful to delete any references which could be used to establish authorship. And some journals (Ethics for example, which literally razors out offending comments) are good too. On the other hand, I've gotten a paper or two with authorship claimed on the first page. It would be a good thing if we all resolved to emulate those who take anonymity seriously. Being too sure that everyone is trying to lift the veil will only make it harder to improve the situation.

I often referee in some relatively unpopulated areas. But I find that even when I'm pretty sure who wrote something, the effect of not being sure is salutary in so far as it helps me give papers the benefit of the doubt even when I'm not initially inclined to like them. I fully realize that I will still have biases that effect my opinions, and that anonymity is no panacea in a small field like ours. But a bit of social pressure on all of us to make our manuscripts anonymous, on referees to respect anonymity, and on editors to keep things honest, surely could not hurt.

Jender said...

MVR-- I agree completely with what you've said. There seem to be two really common, and interestingly opposed, mistakes in discussing this: (1) Assuming too quickly that everyone involved has managed to overcome their biases; (2) Assuming too quickly that everyone is so weak-willed that they'll work to undermine anonymity in such a way as to make efforts at anonymity pointless.

Brit-- Great news about Synthese! And yes, prestige-related biases are hugely important. (And not wholly unrelated to gender ones, since women are likely to be less prestigious.) In fact, they may be tougher to overcome. Not many philosophy referees, hopefully, have a conscious belief that men are better philosophers than women. But lots of them have a conscious belief that work by N is especially likely to be good, where 'N' is the name for a famous philosopher.