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AAAS Advocacy: LiveScience Op-Ed Tackles Unconscious Bias

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Geraldine Richmond, chair, AAAS Board of Directors | AAAS

In an op-ed on the popular LiveScience website, Geraldine Richmond, chair of the AAAS Board of Directors, today called for more uniform data-collection and data-sharing as well as candid discussion to help minimize unconscious or “implicit” bias in peer review.

“It’s time to tackle implicit bias in peer review, to ensure that the best science is funded and published,” Richmond wrote on LiveScience. Peer review of scholarly journal articles and federal research-grant applications “is the backbone of modern science,” which plays a key role in both scientific and career advancement, but improvements can always been made, said Richmond, a professor of chemistry and Presidential Chair in Science at the University of Oregon, and the U.S. Science Envoy to the Southeast Asian Lower Mekong River countries.

Research has shown that unconscious biases related to gender, ethnicity, geographic location, institutional affiliation, disability status, or other factors can affect even the most well-meaning peer reviewers. Implicit bias can occur because, as Richmond explained, “The human brain uses past experiences and surroundings to help a person make mental shortcuts in navigating decisions that, in ancient times, could have meant the difference between survival and death.” An individual’s inherent biases tend to become more pronounced when making snap decisions, she noted.

At a recent AAAS Forum on Implicit Bias in Peer Review, featuring presentations by journal editors, federal funders, and researchers, participants reviewed existing data related to implicit bias, and discussed next steps toward minimizing it. A first step, noted by Richmond as well as a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report on federal funding-agency procedures, is better data and information-sharing. At the same time, Richmond said, “Scientists must simply be willing to talk about the issue.”