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Why (and how) we need to kick the habit: exploring unconscious bias

Looking at how unconscious bias could be negatively impacting the publication of good research in your journal

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The human brain is a fascinating, amazing organ and serves its owner in ways we haven’t yet begun to understand. One thing that we do know (thanks to research from the field of neuroscience and related areas) is that it helps us to move to decisions faster via a series of shortcuts. These allow us to make connections and create resolutions without having to manually piece together the information. These shortcuts are very useful but as with everything, there is a price to be paid. But how could such issues affect the peer review process and why do you need to know about them? The answer is called “unconscious bias” (UB) and as we will see; it is an issue of which we all need to be aware…

Ill habits gather by unseen degrees —

As brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas

– John Dryden

It’s all around us

There has recently been a flurry of articles and resources published on the topic of unconscious bias and the variety and range of materials demonstrates just how significant and widespread the issue is. The plain truth is that this sort of bias affects us all – impacting decisions from what products we buy to whom we invite onto editorial boards, how we select reviewers and what value we place on their reports.

Unconscious bias can manifest itself in a myriad of forms so it is useful to be aware of some of the ways in which it could be influencing you and your journal. Without any conscious awareness, any of us could find ourselves:

  • 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

From the pitch of someone’s voice to the way they wear their clothes to how they choose to go to work – all these seemingly inconsequential elements can cause our brains to nudge us to decisions that have no basis in logic. The issue is an important one for many reasons of course, but what we should be most concerned about here is the publication of the “best” research, regardless of who authors it. When unconscious bias starts to affect this consideration; it is clearly time to make some changes.

Taking action against bias

Several organizations and groups, Elsevier among them, are making conscious efforts to tackle unconscious bias. This has led to the creation of a number of resources which can be employed to identify and combat UB or to reduce the likelihood of it affecting the peer review and academic publishing process. At Elsevier we’ve been introducing various methodologies and tools to complement this approach:

  • 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
  • Organizing/hosting a webinar and associated Mendeley group on the topic of gender bias (a common sub variety of UB)
  • Introducing a new section on the Elsevier.com website on the topic of unconscious bias (forthcoming)
  • 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
  • Curating a gender in research group on Mendeley which hosts among other resources the ground-breaking “gender in the global research landscape” report
  • 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

What can you do?

As with many maladies, recognition that a problem exists (or may exist) is the first step in the curative process. Hopefully just reading this article will have caused you to pause and look into the distance, questioning a time when unconscious bias might have pushed you towards a decision or action. Thankfully, there are now many tools and resources you can use to hone your ability to identify and tackle UB.

One of the easiest things that you can do is to make a concerted 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.  As well as being alert for your own UB, you might of course also recognize it in other team members. 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.

Recognizing and suppressing UB 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.

United against bias

Elsevier is committed to ensuring that publishing is fair and equitable for all. At the end of the day, we want authors to feel confident in our journals and able to publish research without bias or prejudice. At the same time, we want to strive for a better balance of genders, ethnicities and other characteristics in our editorial teams. We hope that this has been a useful introduction to the subject and invite you to take advantage of the tools and resources available to you to help tackle this important issue.

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