The American Economic Association has announced that from July 1st, “double-blind reviewing” will be dropped for the American Economic Review (being the flagship journal in the economics profession), and the 4 other journals which the AEA publishes. Here’s the full statement on their website:
Upon a joint recommendation of the editors of the American Economic Review and the four American Economic Journals, the Executive Committee has voted to drop the “double-blind” refereeing process for all journals of the American Economic Association. The change to “single-blind” refereeing will become effective on July 1, 2011. Easy access to search engines increasingly limits the effectiveness of the double-blind process in maintaining anonymity. Further, it increases the administrative cost of the journals and makes it harder for referees to identify an author’s potential conflicts of interest arising, for example, from consulting.
So, how good are these arguments?
The cost/efficiency argument I cannot fully judge (since I have no access to information on production costs), but it seems reasonable that double-anonymous reviewing entails additional costs since some papers will not be properly anonymized, and this needs to be checked etc. But, I’d say, this is a cost well worth paying for the sake of fairness and for making sure the best pieces get published, hence for the sake of quality (on which more in two minutes).
The argument that search engines make it easy to identify the authors could be countered by introducing rules or norms to the author, the editors, and the reviewers. The authors should not put their paper online, and if they do, they should submit it for review under a different title; if the paper is accepted, the title can still be reversed to the original one, if one explains to the editors that the change had been for the sake of preserving the fully anonymous review. The editors should ask the reviewers not to undertake any effort to identify the author, just as they currently ask the reviewers to treat the submission confidentially, hence not to distribute it or talk about it with others. And the reviewers can contribute by understanding that double-anonymous review is essential to safeguard both fairness and quality-control in reviewed publications (one which more in one minute), and hence that it goes against the academic ethos.
The third argument which the AEA offers is that dropping double-anonymous review would make it easier “for referees to identify an author’s potential conflicts of interest arising, for example, from consulting”. Pardon me, but why is this the referee’s duty? Isn’t it the duty of the journal to explicitely demand from paper submitters that they reveal any potential conflict of interest, from the paper submitters to voluntarily submit such information, and from the economics profession to severely punish authors who cheat this ethical code? (shaming may do).
So the arguments offered by the AEA are not very strong, to my mind. More importantly, there are two arguments against dropping double-anonymous review: a fairness and a quality-enhancing argument, and both are closely related.
We know from the scholarly literature on implicit bias that all human beings implicitly (and thus non-intentionally) discriminate against certain groups. (Harvard University has a whole center devoted to this field of research). In academia, this translates itself in a bias against women (and most likely other groups too, such as people of color and ethnic/linguistic minorities, but I’ve only studied the literature on gender discrimination; our notoriously smart CT readership will surely know more about this and complement/correct me). If one needs an entrance to this literature, a good place to start is the literature collected by Feminist Philosophers, who have been conducting the gendered conference campaign as a measure to counter this implicit bias in academia. See also this and this post at Feminist Philosophers which are directly on the issue of why anonymous reviewing is important.
Implicit bias can explain what some studies found, namely that women are more likely to get published under a double-anonymous review system than under a single-anonymous review system where the author’s identity is disclosed to the reviewer. Inside Higher Education refers to some of those studies, most outside economics. These discrimination studies can be and have been criticized on methodological grounds, so perhaps we don’t know 100% for sure that women and other groups are discriminated against if their group-affiliations are known. But the evidence suggests that it is very likely – and why take the risk? Peer-reviewed publishing is so crucial in an academic’s career, and especially if it concerns top-journals as the AER, that there is a strong argument to do everything one reasonably can to ensure that the process is fair and that reviewers and editors judge submissions only on the quality of the work, rather than on implicit discrimination triggered by non-conscious stereotypes associated with the group the author is affiliated with, such as her sex, university, country of residence, linguistic group, etc.
And what is wonderful – fairness and quality-enhancing go hand-in-hand, since the reviewers will not be distracted by these irrelevant features when judging the quality of someone’s work. Hence even if a journal only cares about the quality of what it publishes, it should opt for the double-anonymous review process. Fairness is another motivation (for me the much more weightier). But those who do not care about fairness at all should take note that the argument for double-anonymous review can also be made on grounds of quality-enhancement only.
Note 1: Most of these arguments were raised in an e-mail dicussion among Associated Editors and Board Members of Feminist Economics over the last days; the editors are setting up a petition to urge the AEA to revise its decision. To be continued.
Note 2: I have not used the AEA’s ‘double-blind’ terminology but rather use ‘double-anonymous’, since disability scholars have argued that the term ‘double-blind’ is offensive, see e.g. here.