Editorial bias is not just for publications, as the academic world is beset by the same problems. But as these pieces form the policy of tomorrow, this represents a worrying issue.
It is comforting to think that research studies in peer-reviewed academic journals reveal hidden truths about the world. It is also wrong. The harsh reality is that academic publishing is often used to hide truths, rather than release them.
Much has been written about author bias, but little has been said about the other side of the coin: how bias affects the editors and reviewers who control what is accepted as research evidence. When this has been considered, it is generally in the context of journals favouring research that shows something, rather than research that finds nothing. This is partly attributed to researchers preferring to write about “positive’ results even though “failure” is equally important. If we want to reduce crime, for example, we need to know what programs are unlikely to work, and why.
However, an insidious form of bias comes from deliberate abuse of the peer-review process used by academic journals to determine what research gets published. The “double blind” review method means authors’ names are not disclosed to reviewers, who in turn remain anonymous to authors and (if an article is published) to readers.
This gives immense power to editors, some of whom use it with extreme prejudice – typically very senior researchers; they know who’s who in their field. If they want a paper accepted into their journal because it affirms their personal beliefs, or is written by a like-minded friend or affiliate, they choose reviewers they know will give favourable assessments. If they want a paper rejected, they know who will provide them with ways to justify this decision. Reviewers can block publication of material that competes or conflicts with their own work, values or beliefs. They can “wave through” research supporting their own interests, even if it is substantially flawed. Just as anonymous social media encourages trolls, anonymous peer review encourages the intellectually corrupt.
Most academics know this goes on, especially in the social sciences. It is the absolute antithesis of the robust debate and dissent that academia should stand for, yet is discussed only in frustrated whispers behind closed doors. The cloak of anonymity makes abuse of process difficult to prove, dissuading scholars from openly speaking out. In a publish-or-perish environment, academics have great incentive to steer clear of contentious subjects, or go along with current groupthink.
I speak from experience, spending over a decade researching firearm violence and finding little evidence that Australia’s gun laws affected firearm misuse. This is something academics who have built careers on the fashionable cause of gun control desperately want to squash. Their efforts to reject publication range from partisan:
“The issue of gun control is a very controversial one…I am concerned since this paper reads too much like an advocacy for one side of that debate…and fear that the paper…will be used as a claim that that side is correct.”
“I do not think the average reader will be sufficiently interested in knowing about Australia’s gun control policies and why the scientific evidence is equivocal on the effect of those policies” (from a journal that published other work claiming Australia’s laws have been astonishingly effective).
“Australia went from a very large number down to 1…Australia went from about 80 mass shootings in the 20 years prior to 1996…” (note: there were 12).
To la-la-la, I can’t hear you:
“These measures had the desired effect.”
Manipulation of peer-review is more than a squabble between boffins. It goes to the very heart of whether we want well-informed public policy. When published evidence is deliberately skewed in one direction this damages the content and quality of policy debate and leads to bad outcomes. Suppressing unfavourable or confronting research may support ideologically pleasing decisions – but feeling good about a policy (or about your role in driving it) does not mean that policy will be genuinely effective.
So what can be done? A good first step is to increase editorial and reviewer accountability by removing anonymity from the peer-review process. Some academic journals now do this – but only a fraction. For published articles, why not go further? Release reviewer comments and author responses. Let readers judge for themselves whether the process is sound. If peer-review is functioning as it should, then there is nothing to fear from these changes and no compelling argument against them. If editors and reviewers are fair and impartial, why would such change worry them?
Sadly, there are many vested interests in maintaining the status quo and change is unlikely to happen soon. The best we can do is ask what we really want research to achieve – and decide whether we care enough to protect critical thought and vigorous argument, no matter where that might take us.