bias in peer review

S L Forsburg forsburg at
Sun Jun 8 15:20:47 EST 1997

Constanze Bonifer wrote:
> So it is simple, plain discrimination. Women have to be 2.4 times as
> productive than men to get the same evaluation.Full stop.
> Why is this so? When reading the article it seems that also the
> authors are at a bit of a loss here. They obviously are reluctant to say
> it: IT IS IN THE HEADS of the peers that women are not as good as men.

Is this a surprise to any of us?  And it is ingrained into women, too...
often visitors think I am either the secretary or a postdoc in one
of the men's labs.  And those visitors are often women!  They have
reduced expectations of women.  That is one of the worst aspects of
all this, the women often participate, often unawares, in lowering
> This would also explain why less and less women advance to higher
> positions. Because they are more and more dependent on peer reviews.

It's not just peer review.  The higher you go, the more overt the 
bias becomes. The more the system is set up to reward men who behave
in a particular way.  Women AND men
who do not "play the game" suffer disproporationately.
> If this study proves to be true I see only one solution:
> A simple plain quota.Take scientists who have published with the same impact
> factor, divide the grants up so much percentage men, so much percentage women.

But don't you think that the impact factor is influenced by who you work
how hot the field is, whether you get noticed by a bigshot?  And what
study in Sweden pointed out is that women seem less likely to make those
connections. (I'm being a deliberate devil's advocate here....)

> And evaluate men and women separately.

Separate but equal?  That leads to the worst abuses that affirmative
has been accused of....NO ONE will believe a woman deserves her
if they can say she got it "because she's a woman".  And, there are a 
lot of men who say that NOW;  I'm sure that any woman who's been on
an academic job search has heard that even from the best-intentioned
guys.  "Well, you'll get the interview/offer because they need women."
This is not true now, but widely believed--and used to bolster the
notion that women can't be as good as men.

> This might sound pretty radical. But I think what this study implies is pretty
> outrageous, too. It would be good to get more information.

Absolutely!  And there's actually some information out there.
I found an interesting reference on the web at
discussing a GAO report from 1994 on the peer review process.  The
web page summarizes it thusly:

::THE GAO FOUND that reviewers often knew applicants 
::and tended to give them higher scores than they would
:: give strangers. Prestigious applicants got the 
::benefit of the doubt over lesser-known colleagues. 
::Applicants from top institutions enjoyed a halo 
::effect that boosted scores. Only the NSF provided 
::data about the race of applicants. Though non-whites 
::did worse than whites in NSF  competitions, the 
::GAO said it lacked the evidence to draw conclusions. 
::As to charges of gender bias,  the GAO found 
::discordant gender gaps. At NSF and NEH, men were 
::more likely than women to get funded. At the larger 
::NIH, on the other hand, women were funded more 
::frequently than men.

My hunch is that this last reflects that there are
many fewer women applying, and a higher percentage
of them than men may succeed.  Ie, the average men
are still in the system, and average women tend to
be gone. 

Curiously, given that observation, I found a different spin on the
same GAO report.  Science magazine  discussed it in 1994 (265:863).
That story, entitled "Congress finds little bias in system", 
nevertheless  reports the following from the GAO: 
%% At all three agencies, GAO discovered that scores given to 
%% proposals 'were related to gender', with women recieving 
%% lower scores than men...GAO said that the data weren't adequate 
%% to explain why this pattern exisits, but it conceded that the 
%% lower scoring groups may have submitted poorer quality proposals.

Interesting, eh?  women score consistently lower, but there's
no bias?

Science also says that "GAO found 'a reviewer's personal familiarity 
with an applicant was associated with better scores".

Forgive me, I'm a cynic, and all I can think is, same old, same old.
The Swedish study is not a surprise.  We knew it all along.

-- susan
DON'T REPLY to the email address in header!
It's an anti-spam.  Use the one below.
S L Forsburg, PhD
Molecular Biology and Virology Lab          
The Salk Institute, La Jolla CA 

forsburg at

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