Sunday, March 01, 2009

Double Blind Review, again...

Sorelle's excellent post and discussions got me thinking more about DBR, and then I read Michael's post, which captured an important part of what I wanted to distill out. So first, a summary of the summary, and then other important points.

There are a few serious reasons brought up against DBR. I should say up front that I don't view reasons of the form "We are unbiased/Theory papers can be reviewed with subjectivity/We are better than other fields" as serious, because there's ample empirical evidence for the existence of unconscious systematic biases in many fields (no, not in theory specifically, but we're are still human). And as Michael points out, there's sufficient evidence of actual bias (even if it's not considered malevolent)

The serious reasons against DBR are essentially three:
  • DBR places an unacceptable restriction on the author's ability to disseminate the work
  • There is no way a paper can get a fair review without the reviewers being able to google around to get a sense of the work being produced. Since such a process could easily reveal the names of the authors, this defeats the purpose of DBR, giving an illusion of fairness where none really exists
  • You can't do subrefereeing if you don't know who the authors are.
Michael addressed the first in his post, and the second points more to weakness in the review system than DBR itself. There are mechanisms for dealing with the third in conferences with DBR.

But most importantly, I think the objections are missing the point. If the claim was, "SBR is unfair, and here's a perfect system to replace it", then these objections would be reasonable counters to that claim. But in all that I've read, the reason for DBR is:
To replace the systematic biases associated with SBR by a 'equal playing field of problems' when it comes to paper review.
In other words, the point is not to be perfect, but to be imperfect in a fair way, that doesn't unfairly work against group identity that has nothing to do with the quality of the research.

I really think that perspective is important to keep in mind when discussing this. I have yet to hear any argument for significant harm to authors in going from SBR to DBR. Inconvenience yes, but direct harm, no. And any harm is spread "across the board": I am as likely to suffer in this system as a new grad student or a famous researcher. But the benefits are disproportionate, and correct for structural biases, and that's the point.

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