Minimising or avoiding Bias during
Overview of bias in peer review
Peer review is meant to be a neutral, impartial assessment of the novelty, rigour and scientific merit of a study. Any deviation from objectivity in academic peer review is considered biased peer review. Journal editors or peer reviewers might be swayed by conscious or subconscious biases when deciding which manuscripts are reviewed or accepted for publication. Biased peer review compounds other biases, such as publication bias (e.g. preventing publication by authors of a particular region).
To avoid disappointment, wasted time and amplifying other research biases, all stakeholders in the peer reviewer process need to be more aware of and thereby avoid or minimise the phenomenon.
Common reasons for biased peer review
a. Biases toward or against certain author profiles
When peer reviewers know the identity of the authors, biases against their institute, geography, culture or gender might come into play. For example…
Simply based on the lead author’s country, a peer reviewer may have preconceived notions about the quality of the language used within the manuscript, without even reading it.
Such pre-review preconceptions can colour the peer review report and make the reviewer pass unfair judgement on the quality of the work.
Such a bias can creep in even before actual peer review, i.e. might be introduced by the journal editor, who might make judgments based on the institute or country and decide to not send the manuscript for peer review in the first place.
Bias need not necessarily be negative. Reviewers might perform a cursory review and offer unmerited glowing reviews simply based on the reputation of the authors and their affiliations.
b. Prejudice towards specific findings
Research is, by definition, an exercise in discovery. On occasion, new discoveries may challenge long- and deeply held beliefs, challenging normally inquisitive and dispassionate peer reviewers.
- When encountering novel and unanticipated reports on research, some reviewers might be rigid in their ideas, pushing them to ask authors to delete outcomes or modify analyses.
- Alternatively, other reviewers might discourage the publication of nonsignificant results.
Such practices lead to bias in outcomes and reporting, as well as publication bias.
c. Conflicts of interest (CoIs)
- If a reviewer knows that a manuscript is written by someone with whom they have a personal grudge or professional rivalry, they might give harsh feedback.
- On the other hand, they might provide an inappropriately favourable review to a paper authored by a friend or erstwhile student.
- A reviewer might even feel obliged to give a positive review if they were suggested by the author to act as a reviewer.
Minimising bias in peer review
a. Suggesting peer reviewers ethically
Journals are increasingly asking authors for reviewer suggestions.
- Researchers must ensure that the suggestions are free of potential CoIs – positive or negative.
- On the journal side, editorial offices and editors need to carefully vet all new reviewers, especially those suggested by manuscript authors.
b. Declining peer review if needed
As a reviewer, when you are sure that the identity of a manuscript’s author has a good chance of affecting your judgement, you should decline the review invitation. Let the journal editor know why, and perhaps suggest alternate reviewers who could provide a more objective evaluation.
c. Conducting a blinded peer review
Blinding can help reduce bias in peer review.
- In double-blind peer review, the identities of authors and reviewers are concealed from each other.
- Some journals have even introduced triple-blind peer review, where the authors’ identity is also hidden from the journal editors.
These types of blinding efforts help reviewers focus on the content of an assigned manuscript, rather than a paper’s authorship or institutional affiliation.
d. Conducting an open peer review
In open peer review, the peer review history, including reviewer comments and author responses, is made publicly available. Such a system increases transparency. It also encourages reviewers to be (more) constructive in their comments.
e. Recognising diversity, equity and inclusion in peer review
The quality, objectivity and breadth of research are enhanced when all members of the research community have access to equitable dissemination of their research findings. Publishers and research institutions are well-positioned to provide training to promote diversity and inclusion in peer review. When journals and publishers have diverse editorial boards and diverse pools of reviewers, everyone benefits and knowledge advances freely. Indeed, awareness and open conversations around diversity should be encouraged in academia.
There is a pressing need to minimise bias and improve transparency in academic peer review. Realise that every researcher is a potential peer reviewer. Thus, as a researcher, you should suggest reviewers ethically, and as a reviewer, strive to be impartial when critiquing the work of others.
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