Well-known researchers may receive special treatment, limiting new scientific discoveries

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10/10/2022 – Are there “cool kids” in science? Yes, there is – and that may prevent young people from bringing new research results out into the world.

“Researchers who have a good reputation, come from very prominent universities and are from the US probably have a higher chance of getting their work into a good journal than someone whose work is just as good, but a young graduate student from one obscure university is or country,” says Juergen Huber, PhDfrom the University of Innsbruck, in Austria.

There’s a reason, says Huber, and it’s called status bias — our tendency to favor the work of someone we know. It’s a bit like the popular kid in school being picked for kickball first. We go with those we recognize, respect, or want to be liked by.

A new to learnco-authored by Huber, shows how this status bias can affect peer review, an important part of scholarly publishing.

“[Expert reviewers] Read the paper and decide if it is scientifically significant enough to be published in a journal,” says Sabiou Inoua, PhD, another study co-author.

A peer-reviewed paper is the gold standard in the research world. As a result, researchers must have their work peer-reviewed to validate their findings. But if status prejudice jeopardizes this process—as Huber and Inoua’s research suggests—it could hold back new research and impede progress in everything from medicine to public policy.

What the researchers did

For the study, the researchers distributed a financial paper to more than 3,300 peer reviewers and presented it in three ways:

  1. For some, the paper was credited Vernon L SmithNobel laureate and prominent study author.
  2. For others, it has been attributed to Inoua, a “early-career research associate” with 42 Google Scholar citations (compared to Smith’s 54,000 citations).
  3. In a third version, the paper was anonymous, with no study author listed.

Reviewers must first decide whether to read a work at all. In the study, 31% agreed to read the anonymous work, compared to 28.5% who chose to read Inoua’s work. Smith’s verification rate improved to 38.5%.

That is, the anonymous author had a better chance that their work will be read than the less recognized author, and the Nobel laureate had even better chances.

The differences were even clearer when it came time to approve (or reject) the paper. When the Nobel Prize winner was included in the list, 23% of the reviewers rejected the work. Anonymous was rejected by 48%. And a whopping 65% considered the paper unfit for publication if the author was a novice researcher.

Remember this was the same Paper. The only difference was the author.

“The rejection rate is three times higher for low-profile authors, which means they have a much lower chance of getting published,” says Huber. “Since publishing is of crucial importance, especially for young scientists, this is pretty bad news.”

Is it time to “fix” peer review?

This study adds to a growing scrutiny of the peer review process, including whether it may be susceptible to other types of bias, such as gender bias. (It also comes amid a slacking pandemic, after an urgent need for COVID treatments led many researchers to bypass peer review entirely and push papers straight to print to get them out faster.)

A possible solution could be the use of a doubly anonymous peer review system, where reviewer and author remain anonymous.

The problem: “Many papers that are waiting for a peer review have already been presented in some form at conferences or are otherwise available on the Internet,” says Huber. So a single Google search could easily reveal an author’s identity.

But Huber is confident that changes are on the horizon.

“Members of the scientific community are very interested and ready to take action,” he says. “Some processes have to change. There is a lot of potential in the 300 year history of peer review to take the next step.” How the process will change is not yet known, but being aware of the problem is the first step.


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Well-known researchers may receive special treatment, limiting new scientific discoveries
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