Big Name Researchers May Get Special Treatment, Limiting New Science

Oct. 10, 2022 – Are there “cool kids” in science? Yes, there are – and that may be limiting up-and-comers from getting new research out into the world.  

“Researchers who have a good reputation, are from very prominent universities, and are from the U.S. probably have a higher chance of getting their work into a good journal than does someone whose work is equally good but is a young PhD from an obscure university or country,” says Juergen Huber, PhD, of the University of Innsbruck, in Austria. 

There’s a reason for that, says Huber, and it’s called status bias – our tendency to favor the work of someone we know. It’s a bit like the popular kid at school getting picked first for kickball. We go with who we recognize, respect, or want to be liked by.   

A new study, co-authored by Huber, reveals how this status bias can impact peer review, an important part of scientific publishing. 

“[Expert reviewers] read the paper and decide if it is scientifically significant enough to be published in a journal,” says Sabiou Inoua, PhD, another co-author of the study. 

A peer-reviewed paper is the gold standard in the research world. As a result, researchers need to get their work peer-reviewed to validate their findings. But when status bias jeopardizes this process – as Huber and Inoua’s research suggests it does – it could hold new research back, impeding progress in every field from medicine to public policy.   

What the Researchers Did

For the study, the researchers distributed a finance paper to more than 3,300 peer reviewers, presenting it three ways: 

  1. For some, the paper was credited to Vernon L. Smith, a Nobel laureate and prominent study author.
  2. For others, it was credited to Inoua, an “early-career research associate” with 42 Google Scholar citations (compared to Smith’s 54,000 citations). 
  3. In a third version, the paper was anonymous, with no study author listed. 

Reviewers first need to decide whether to read a work at all. In the study, 31% agreed to read the anonymous paper, compared with 28.5% who chose to read Inoua’s work. For Smith, the review rate improved to 38.5%. 

That means the anonymous author had a better chance of having their work read than the less recognized author, and the Nobel laureate had a better chance still. 

The differences were even more noticeable when it came time to accept (or reject) the paper. When the Nobel laureate was listed, 23% of reviewers rejected the paper. Anonymous was turned down by 48%. And a whopping 65% deemed the paper unfit for publishing when the author was the rookie researcher.

Remember, this was the same paper. The only difference was the author. 

“The rejection rate is three times as high for low-prominence authors, implying that they have much lower chances of getting published,” Huber says. “As publishing is crucial, especially for early-career researchers, that is quite bad news.”

Is It Time to ‘Fix’ Peer Review? 

This study adds to growing scrutiny of the peer review process, including whether it may be prone to other kinds of bias, such as racial or gender bias. (It also comes amid a waning pandemic, after an urgent need for COVID treatments prompted many researchers to bypass peer review altogether, pushing papers straight to print to get them out faster.)

One potential solution could be to use a double-anonymized peer review system, where the reviewer and author remain anonymous. 

The problem: “Many papers awaiting peer review have already been presented in some form at conferences, or are otherwise available on the web,” Huber says. So, a single Google search could easily expose an author’s identity.

But Huber feels confident that change is on the horizon. 

“Members of the scientific community are very interested and ready to take action,” he says. “Some processes need to change. There is a lot of potential for the 300-year history of peer review to take the next step.” How the process will change is not yet known, but being aware of the problem is the first step.