During the Joint Math Meetings, I found myself discussing with a large and diverse group of people whether double-blind refereeing would be a good idea for math publications. This is not standard practice, although the referee usually does have anonymity in the process. This conversation began because a recent study (to be published soon in MAA FOCUS in an article written by Francis Su and Betty Mayfield) showed that women in mathematics are underrepresented when it comes to publishing. By this I mean that given how many women are mathematicians (and active members of professional societies like AMS or MAA), only a small percentage of those (I forget the number) are publishing in the big journals. As you can tell I have very few details (this is a study that hasn’t been published yet, after all), but what I was interested in doing in this post was discussing whether double-blind refereeing could solve the problem of representation of women and minorities in journals, and whether this under-representation is really caused by the refereeing process. What I’m most interested in, actually, is opening this topic for discussion.
The first thing I think about is whether this problem (i.e. that the ratio of women publishing to the women who are mathematicians is small) just has to do with general issues of women in mathematics. By this I mean that there is definitely something stopping women from pursuing mathematics as a career, whether it’s societal pressures, preference, stereotype threat, or being too pretty. Maybe some of these underlying issues also affect women who are well into mathematician-hood? It wouldn’t be hard to imagine (from my own impostor syndrome) that women mathematicians are just not as likely to submit papers to journals as their male counterparts. Of course, I am speculating again, because I have no data. But if this is the case (women just don’t submit as much) then using double-blind refereeing is not really addressing the problem. Although if it’s stereotype threat (women or minorities feel they are representing a whole group of people), then maybe knowing that their gender is not going to factor into the reviewing process might make women more likely to submit papers.
The problem is to figure out if there is some hidden gender bias that is affecting how papers are being evaluated. Luckily for me and many of my contemporaries, I have not seen much open sexism in mathematics. But biases might be involuntary. In this case, it would definitely be beneficial to have a double-blind system, and thus eliminate any danger of biases that people are not even aware of.
I can think of other biases, too. Biases depending on institution or even your Ph.D. advisor (this is easy to look up given the author’s name, thanks to the math genealogy project). I’m sure that people’s opinion of a paper would change if it was Jane Doe from Big Famous School or Jane Doe from Small Liberal Arts College or even Fulana De Tal from Some South American University.
In fact, I can see very few drawbacks to a double-blind system. So I went online and found an editorial on double-blind refereeing by Gillian Raab and Uma Moorthy in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. In the “advantages” section they list many of the things I have mentioned. In the “disadvantages” they mention things I hadn’t thought about, like “many referees feel that they provide extra advice to new researchers” and the fact that “it may be advantageous, particularly for new researchers, to publicize their pre-publication work through the refereeing process.” They also discuss an experiment they conducted, and their conclusions were that “acceptance rates are lower and referees more critical under a double-blind system and the authors from top rated and low rated institutions are little affected by double-blind refereeing, but that double-blind refereeing disadvantages authors from middle ranked institutions as well as foreign authors and those from non-academic institutions.” As this was an editorial it didn’t have all the details of the study, but it was definitely interesting to see results that went against my initial intuition (their experiment was conducted through an Economics journal, I don’t know if that matters).
On a final note, I have mentioned this conundrum to friends from other disciplines, and they were quite appalled that double-blind refereeing wasn’t the norm. Some even said that double-blind journal publications count more heavily for tenure, given that it is (as stated above) more difficult to get a publication in such a journal.
What are your thoughts, dear readers? Do you think switching math journals to double-blind refereeing could be a good idea? How about just moving the name and institution to the end of the paper? Do you think this would add unreasonable burdens on editors? Have you refereed a paper using a double-blind system? I look forward to reading your comments!