A biased comment on double-blind review


  • Conflicts of interest
    None declared.


It is not surprising that, if given the chance, researchers will complain about the bias of the editors who declined to send their paper out for review, or, if it was sent out, the poor quality of the reviewers’ comments. To be treated fairly, you have to be known by the editors, come from the right institution or already be world famous. Fear of bias from editors and reviewers explains why a survey of researchers found a clear preference for implementing double-bind peer review (DBR) (http://www.publishingresearch.net/PeerReview.htm).

In DBR, the names and affiliations of the authors of a manuscript are not revealed to the reviewers, and sometimes not even to the editors. Like the double-blind clinical trial, DBR is an innovation that attempts to reduce bias and increase objectivity in scientific publications.

The rationale is that if reviewers and editors don’t know the names of authors of a paper, they can only judge it on the quality of its scientific content, and cannot be biased for or against a publication because of the nationality, gender or affiliation of the authors. But does DBR actually work?

A paper in this volume of BJD puts DBR to the test.1 In this study, manuscripts submitted to Dermatologic Surgery were each assigned to four reviewers, two of whom were blinded to the identity of the authors, and two who were not. When the reviews they wrote were compared, no significant differences were found between those from the blinded and nonblinded reviewers, which led the authors to conclude that, at least for this journal, blinding during peer review did not affect the quality of the reviews.

The message I take is that DBR is at least as good as regular peer review. However, this study might have underestimated the benefits of DBR. As pointed out by the authors, both the blinded and nonblinded reviewers in the study knew they were being scrutinized on the quality of their reviews, so it seems likely that they would all have been on their best behaviour. In other words, because this wasn’t a double-blind trial of double-blind review, the conclusions should be treated cautiously.

I’ll declare my prejudice – I believe that DBR, like the double-blind clinical trial, is simply a better way of doing science, because both reduce bias. The real question is why isn’t DBR standard practice?