Affiliation bias in peer review favours male authors – study

Male academics assessed more highly if they work at a top-ranked university but same bias does not materialise for female scholars

June 15, 2021
Source: istock

Male academics are assessed more highly by journal editors if it is revealed they work at a top-ranked university but the same bias does not materialise for female scholars, according to a new study.

To explore the effect of institutional bias on peer review decisions, US researchers asked editors from the world’s leading economics journals to evaluate a handful of abstracts to guess whether the paper was published or not, the citations it received and their overall assessment of its quality.

While editors saw the same abstracts, the study varied whether they could ​see the name and affiliation of the author. Despite 79 per cent of 165 respondents being male, the analysis found there was no overt gender bias in assessments, with women facing no bias when the name of the author was visible to the editor compared to when it was not.

But the study, which has been posted online as a working paper, found that editors who evaluated the work of a male author from a highly ranked institution rated it more positively if the affiliation was disclosed to the editors.

“Men are given a boost in how their work is evaluated for landing at a top institution and are almost punished for being at lower ranked institution,” the study’s authors, Fulya Ersoy and Jennifer Pate, who are both based in the department of economics at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, told Times Higher Education.

“On the other hand, women from top institutions and lower-ranked institutions are not evaluated differently.”

The reason for the study’s conclusion that “institution serves as a signal for quality of work for men, but not for women” may be explained by editors’ prejudices in terms of why female economists had been appointed, the authors speculated.

“Women’s successes are perhaps attributed to luck or affirmative action policies whereas men’s successes are attributed to their abilities and skills,” they said.

The study underlined the need for blind peer review in economics – a field traditionally dominated by men to the extent that just two of the discipline’s 84 Nobel laureates have been women – given that “tenure decisions in economics are strongly tied to the quantity and quality of publications in peer-reviewed journals”, said the authors.

The analysis adds to a growing body of literature that suggests the issue of gender bias in peer review is less clear-cut than some have claimed; in January, a review of 350,000 submissions by 1.7 million authors across 145 journals in various fields found “peer review and editorial processes do not penalise manuscripts by women”. Nonetheless it called on journals to diversify their editorial teams and reviewer pools.

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