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Just your initials, please! Subverting sexist biases in peer-review

Last week I posted a column about the rather embarrassing fuss some people made when they discovered the phenomenally successful Facebook page “I Fucking Love Science” is created and curated by a woman, Elise Andrew.

This fired a couple of interesting discussions, here on The Conversation and on Twitter. One of the tweets I received about this came from Sydney University astronomer, science luminary and best-selling author of Extreme Cosmos, Professor Bryan Gaensler:

Professor Bryan Gaensler tweeted “I publish as "B.M. Gaensler” because my gender isn’t relevant. Don’t like pic of author in my head when I read their paper. Twitter

This struck me as a modest but principled thing male authors could do to make gender less a part of the peer-review process. But I also thought it might be a trivially small thing to do. I doubt anyone in the astrophysics world has wonders who the mystery “B.M Gaensler” is when they review his papers.

But a piece of Correspondence in yesterday’s issue of Nature has me re-evaluating. Tina M Iverson, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, was responding to Nature’s recent special issue on the gender gap in science.

While analyses of gender-gaps and sexism tend to focus on large samples or on stories about the experience of individuals, Iverson reports on a small experiment she did. Extending a proud tradition that stretches from Benjamin Franklin to Barry Marshall, she used herself as the subject.

In my first year as a researcher in 2005, I submitted 16 grant applications under my full name, which is not gender neutral. Just one received funding.

The next year, applying using only her initials and last name, her success rate went up fivefold.

This was only an n = 1 experiment, but I didn’t care to repeat it.

But inadvertenly repeat it she did. Her university’s electronic application system, without her knowledge, entered her first name. And her success rate plummetted to match that in the first year. Last, after persuading her institution to use only her first initials and last name, her success rate returned to the levels of year 3. As she puts it:

I am the same applicant. The replicates are low, but the outcome apparently differed only when it was obvious to the reviewers that I was female.

What’s in a name?

It seems to me that there might be more value to Professor Gaensler’s strategy than I first thought. We’ve exchanged tweets about Iverson’s letter this morning, and a few people have chimed in – mostly despondent that bias can be as obvious and blatant as Iverson’s very limited experiment hints.

Our names shape the trajectories of our lives and careers more than we might know. In science, names near the start of the alphabet are cited more than those near the end (Darwin a better name then Wallace?), and unfamiliar or foreign names are more susceptible to misspelling in citations.

When I was lecturing in South Africa in the early 90s, students from all racial groups felt they were being discriminated against on the basis of racial judgements: arrived at when markers read a student’s name on the exam paper. The university solved this quite simply by sealing off the name on exam scripts.

While authors seldom learn the identity of the peers who review their papers, some journals recognise that referees knowing authors' names could express any number of biases. Several journals now have double-blind review. When I was on the board of Behavioral Ecology a few years ago, double-blind reviewing was viewed positively by a large majority of society members. And academics more generally view double-blind publishing as fairer.

Subverting bias

Some of the despondency in today’s Twitter conversation stems from the fact women’s contribution to research, and in workplaces more generally, suffers from low visibility. Using initials or otherwise, removing gender cues can only make this problem worse.

I completely agree. And yet I wonder whether the pursuit of fairness in general and gender equity in particular tends too often to focus on big across-the-board changes. While those who want fairer systems should not let up on the big-picture push for systemic revolution, individuals need to employ more guerrilla-like versatility.

There will always be a place for subverting and confounding bias. Women who want to fly under the gendered radar occasionally might want to use only their initials and remove other gendered cues. At other times they might choose to maximise their visibility as women.

And men, such as Professor Gaensler, can play their part in subverting (and maybe even eroding) bias by choosing to make their own gender a little less visible.

Which men will prove willing to eschew the apparent advantage of a masculine name remains an interesting question.

What will I do? I’ve long disliked the obsession with branding and the finger-wagging from various information administrators I know to publish using a consistent, easily-searchable version of my name. I didn’t use my middle initial until two years ago, and only do so sporadically now. But I think I’ll do my part and go initials-only for a while.

I know this is only the tip of a much bigger and more serious iceberg. But I’d like to hear from folks who might have other ideas to subvert or confuse biases. And if you don’t reckon biases are real, then what have you got to lose from subverting them? Comments here or on Twitter @Brooks_Rob #subvertbias