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Is abstract peer review affected by institutional and geographical bias?

As the quantity of academic publications and subsequent data overload continue to grow, deciding what to read has become increasingly difficult. The status of an academic institution or country are recognised ‘cues’ used by some academics to determine the most important, or most reputable, research. This feeds into the  halo effect, which suggests that publications from ‘higher-status’ locations are viewed more favourably, potentially influencing the peer-review processes. A recent study, published in eLife, put this theory to the test by examining the impact of author’s geographical location and academic affiliation on the scholarly evaluation of scientific abstracts.

The study by Professor Mathias Wullum Nielsen and colleagues recruited over 4,000 research-active academics from 6 disciplines: astronomy, cardiology, materials science, political science, psychology, and public health. Participants were asked to review adapted or newly created abstracts with fictive authors and affiliations, appropriate to their respective fields. The discipline-specific abstracts, which differed only on author country and institution, were assessed on the following criteria:

  • originality, credibility, significance, and clarity
  • whether the reviewer would decide to open the full text and continue reading based on the abstract
  • whether the reviewer would choose to include the abstract for a conference presentation.

The authors discovered weak and inconsistent evidence for bias against countries or institutions of perceived lower scientific status. Furthermore, and contrary to expectations, peer assessors from some disciplines (political science) were less likely to consider an abstract appropriate for a conference if its author was affiliated with a more prestigious versus less prestigious US university.

The authors discovered weak and inconsistent evidence for bias against countries or institutions of perceived lower scientific status.

The weak evidence for status bias reported by Prof. Nielsen might reassure researchers that abstracts are likely to be judged on merit. However, the authors stated that their findings should be viewed in light of several limitations, noting that in real-world settings, abstracts might be rejected before being read if reviewers perceived the author’s institution or country of origin to be of lower scientific status. This, in turn, might reduce the likelihood of these abstracts being cited. Furthermore, status bias may still exist in other forms of peer review, including evaluation of journal articles or grant applications. The authors encouraged further research into additional factors that might influence geographical or institutional status hierarchies in the peer-review process.

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Do you believe academic peer review is influenced by country- or institution-related status bias?

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