The process of blind peer review has long been a hallmark of academic research. A blind survey ensures that the study is evaluated based on the value of the work and not the individuals who performed the work. Theoretically, this leads to better research and mitigates the impact of bias and gateway in scientific publications. In reality, however, blind scrutiny can contribute to perpetuating institutional discrimination by turning a blind eye to the identities of those whose work is being disseminated and to the programs of their institutions. It is time for academia to reconsider the implications of blind review and to create research evaluation processes that promote the exchange of quality work without the unintended consequences of enhancing the legacy of harm.
The pitfalls of the blind review became clear to me when I heard from the people who attended the event I organized, the Symposium on Pandemic Research (PPRS), which took place on 11 May. Our goal was to bring together research from around the world on how universities are transforming the way they teach, building on the innovation of distance and hybrid learning in the pandemic era. In evaluating the research proposals, we used the double-blind review process; I sent the deidentified materials to a group of external reviewers, and they returned the reviews anonymously. Each proposal was considered by three people, and the scores were summed up. The final program of the symposium included 34 proposals that received the highest number of points.
This seemed a responsible and time-tested way to ensure that our review process was not affected by implicit bias. In fact, we accepted an application from a group of authors representing several universities with a stated policy that discriminates against LGBTQ students, faculty and staff. In particular, the four religious universities represented at our event have a formal policy that prohibits students from expressing the identities of gays, lesbians, queers or transgender people. Students and staff who violate this rule face sanctions, including expulsion or termination of employment. The feedback we heard from our participants reflected the genuine and deep resentment they felt while listening to the talk of innovative teaching by people representing universities who adhere to discriminatory beliefs and practices.
Blind screening protects us from making bad decisions due to implicit bias, but also prevents us from taking active measures to eliminate discrimination and eliminate discrimination explicit bias. By not allowing individual and institutional identities in the decision to publish, we create spaces for messages that conflict with our values.
Blind review also creates a way for people who control spaces for discourse to avoid the responsibility of making those spaces inclusive. Instead, it is the responsibility of those of us who control the dissemination of research to consider the historical consequences of institutional discrimination and to take deliberate and proactive measures to mitigate it. If we do not actively fight discrimination, we will continue to do harm.
At a minimum, conference organizers and magazine editors should think about how they can ensure that the work they distribute is in line with their values. Researchers have always been judged not only by the research they do, but also by the context in which they do it, from the ethics of data collection to how they use and cite the work of others. Given the practice of equity and inclusion in the institutions where they work, it is necessary to expand the assessment of research ethics.
Blind review of materials should remain the standard for performance appraisal, but a final open review should be conducted to exclude materials from institutions that are incompatible with the stated values of the event or publication. This has an immediate effect, ensuring that our publications do not give a voice to institutions that promote discriminatory practices. In the long run, bringing researchers to account for the institutions in which they choose to work can be a catalyst for more meaningful and effective changes in where research funding goes and where people choose to work.
In the case of PPRS, I had to include a statement in our call for proposals stating that materials from institutions that intentionally and explicitly discriminate against LGBTQ students and staff would not be accepted. I also had to check the accepted proposals to make sure they all met that standard. I will be doing this in the future and I urge other organizers and editors to do the same.
There is room for blind review in the academic publishing process, but it should only be part of the process. It is time to take our responsibility for taking active steps to eliminate inequality and discrimination in scientific publishing houses. Going beyond blind vision is one step in that direction.