Unconscious bias

What is unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias (UB) arises from a feature of the human brain that helps us make decisions faster via a series of shortcuts. It shapes our perception of the world and our fellow human beings and can lead to us make questionable decisions. It means that we often end up treating people and situations based on unconscious generalizations and preconceptions rather than using a set of objective qualitative or quantitative parameters.


Tools and resources

We have identified several tools, resources and articles to improve your understanding of UB and help you to identify it in yourself and start overcoming your internal biases (please see below for a full list of resources). Some simple tips include:

  • Taking a conscious effort to slow down your decision making and in doing so repeatedly question yourself as to whether you’re looking at the widest group of possible variables or the broadest choice of candidates
  • Being open and alert for your own unconscious bias (you might of course also recognize it in colleagues)
  • When you do see UB happening, the best way of addressing it is face to face - tackle it straight on and point out how bias may be creeping into a process

What is Elsevier doing to tackle unconscious bias?

Elsevier is introducing various methodologies and tools to identify and eradicate UB including:

  • Introducing double blind peer review and/or other forms of peer review for journals where appropriate, adapted to the needs of the community in question
  • Issuing internal briefings to raise staff awareness of the subject and giving them tools and resources to further spread awareness among editors, board members and reviewers
  • Drawing attention to UB – and giving advice on how it can be reduced – in guides for authors, reviewer invitation letters and editorial contracts
  • Reviewing and addressing the gender diversity of editors, editorial boards, and reviewers to ensure journals continue to be relevant, representative, and stimulating to the communities they serve
  • Producing analytics and studies on gender and other characteristics in research and in science, technical, and medical publishing
  • Reviewing and addressing the gender diversity of speakers and presenters at Elsevier-organized conferences
  • Striving for greater transparency and diversity with regards to editors and board members

Why is unconscious bias relevant?

UB is important when its effects start to impinge on the academic publishing process and/or mean that segments of communities are denied access to opportunities (for example serving on editorial boards or being included on a shortlist of candidates for an editorial role). At Elsevier, we believe that no-one should be prevented from taking full part in the academic publishing process so we strive for maximum transparency in how we approach selection opportunities and are actively educating our staff, editors and reviewers about UB, how it can be identified and how it can be overcome. Ultimately, we aim to publish the world’s best research and if some authors are being denied opportunities to publish, review or edit then we must act.


What does it mean for academic publishing?

Unconscious Bias can negatively affect the publishing process in a number of ways, for example:

  • Rating a report from a reviewer with a similar name as ours more highly than someone else’s
  • Downgrading the advice of a fellow editor if they subscribe to a different religious or political outlook
  • Tending to appoint more editorial board members whose social backgrounds match ours
  • Accepting more articles authored by a particular gender
  • Refusing to acknowledge the validity of an alternative perspective if put forward by someone with a different educational level
  • Working in an all-male editorial team

Recognizing and suppressing unconscious bias is a skill and like any other skill; you need to keep refreshing/practising regularly. Many institutes and organizations now deliver specific training on UB so familiarize yourself with what’s available where you work and take advantage of whatever is on offer.


Articles/further reading on UB

Royal society UB video

Editors update article on UB

Nature Journals invite too few women to referee

Put gender experts on evaluation panels, Commission told

Scholarly Kitchen article Gender Bias in Peer Review

Huffington post UB article

Editors’ Update article on gender balance

Tools for UB

Harvard unconscious bias test

Groups/resources on UB

Elsevier Publishing Campus gender bias webinar

Mendeley gender in the global research landscape group

Mendeley gender bias group

Elsevier Gender report