Impartiality in peer review has been a focus of recent debate as a number of studies have shown that peer review is not as impartial as it is assumed to be (e.g. Lamont, 2009). Studies have shown that peer-review in academia is biased against many characteristics of the author such as prestige, affiliation, content orientation (such as conservatism), interdisciplinary biases, the social characteristics of peer-reviewers, and the composition of the peer-review team. I find it especially interesting that language, as well as nationality, are a strong source of bias in peer review. If a non-native speaker is submitting a manuscript in English, the reviewer will most probably comment or even reject it based on the quality of the writing, even though the article would eventually be proofread and edited by a native-English speaking professional.
When considering bias in peer review one must consider the scientific ethos of universalism that contributes to research quality following Robert Merton’s (1973) the Normative Structure of Science. However, my recent research on the composition of editorial boards in West and East/Central European journals, the composition of the peer review panels of research councils in the selected European countries (Leisyte 2014), the study of grant applications by March, Jayasinghe and Bond (2008), as well as peer review committee composition study (Van Arensbergen 2014) have shown that although the internationalization of peer review and research quality are strongly interconnected in various research evaluation regimes, peer review is rarely impartial when it comes to nationality. The internationalization of peer review varies from country to country and from one scientific discipline to another. Larger countries that have a more significant critical mass of scientists in different fields tend to have ‘native’ editorial boards. Journals and peer review committees for research councils that distribute funding tend to rely on national expertise in their research evaluation exercises (if and when they conduct such exercises at the national level).
My study also demonstrated differences in the extent of the internationalization between selected Western and Central and Eastern European (CEE) academic journals’ editorial boards. Western European journals’ editorial boards seem to be more internationally oriented than CEE editorial boards. Further, journals in hard sciences, such as in chemistry seem to be more internationally oriented in the European context than in humanities and social sciences. Interestingly, in the US, selected social sciences/humanities journals seem to be more international in board composition than hard science editorial boards. Research council boards reflect only limited internationalization. Most of the European peer-review boards studied are populated by home-country nationals, with the exception of some smaller countries that are more likely to include international scholars on their peer-review boards.
Thus, despite the claims of the impartiality of peer review, nationality and language biases continue to influence the peer review process by academic journals, research council review committees as well as other national research evaluation exercises. This calls for more thoughtful discussion and debate about what constitutes world-class research quality in different countries and different disciplines and how it is evaluated. Greater respect to a diversity of approaches, traditions, languages and nationalities are a few elements that should be incorporated into peer review processes by journal editors, policymakers and others who design research evaluation schemes. This should include attention specifically to the number of international experts included in the committees and journal review boards with (perhaps) at least one- third international. Further, review and editorial guidelines could address the tendency towards an English-language bias by insuring that the reviewers are picked from different language backgrounds and nationalities. In some disciplines and fields it will be more difficult to accomplish than in others—probably in scientific disciplines, like chemistry for example, international participation will be easier to achieve than in history. But awareness of the problem and a commitment to take concrete steps to diminish biases in peer review would be a positive step forward for the international research community.
Lamont, M. 2009. How Professor Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Leisyte, L. (2014). Mokslo kokybės skatinimas pasitelkiant tarptautinį ekspertinį vertinimą (The Internationalisation of academic research for quality improvement of Lithuanian science). Presentation at the conference of the Lithuanian Research Council "Mokslo tarptautiškumas Lietuvos mokslo kokybei gerinti", Vilnius, Lithuania, November 3, http://www.zhb.tu-dortmund.de/hd/prof-hdhf-vortraege/?L=1
March, H.W., Jayasinghe, U. W. and Bond, N.W. (2008) Improving the Peer-Review Process for Grant Applications.
Van Arensbergen, P. (2014) Talent Proof: Selection Processes in Research Funding and Careers. Den Haag: Rathenau Instituut.
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