Things reviewers do not need to know

2015-04-29

There are some things people don’t need to know, especially when it comes to evaluating scientific quality. I posted previously about unintentional bias in academic evaluation, and since then I’ve been thinking about whether or not concrete steps can be taken to address these types of biases. After talking with a colleague who recently applied for an internationalisation grant, I would like to propose that part of the problem would be solved by sharing less information. Here are three things application reviewers shouldn’t know:

1. They should not know your family status, i.e. whether or not you are married, have a partner, or have children. My colleague pointed out that on the internationalisation grant application with Formas, the very first thing listed on the application after her name was the list of family members travelling with her. While I completely understand that Formas will need to know about family members when it comes to how much money is allocated for a given person, there is absolutely no reason reviewers should see this information because it has nothing to do with your scientific quality. Such information can bias reviewers against those with families, especially young women. I can envision the kinds of thoughts it might spur: ”oh, she has a small child, maybe she’ll be busy taking care of it” and ”look, her child is two years old and maybe she’ll be having another soon and need parental leave”. Why put such thoughts into the mind of a reviewer if it isn’t a valid part of evaluating whether or not this researcher should get funding?

2. They should not know your age. I was shocked when I first moved to Scandinavia nine years ago that it was common (and required) practice to put your age on applications. In the US this is not only discouraged but often forbidden because it encourages age discrimination. What difference does it make for funding my application if I am 30 years old or 60 years old? The only thing that should matter is how long it is since I earned by PhD and whether or not I’m less than 67 (which is required for employment funding). In today’s society where many people go back to school later in life, it is the time since PhD that tells you how ’senior’ someone is, not their age. Age discrimination can cut multiple ways. For women under 40, someone who knows your age might think that you are going to be distracted with children and family. For those who are older in years but recent PhD graduates might be discriminated against for not being ’pure’ academics that went straight through academic training. It is ridiculous that my age (especially since my person number in Sweden reveals it) is on the top of every page of my applications when it has nothing to do with my scientific standing.

3. They should not know why you took leave. It is important that reviewers take into account time away from the job when evaluating scientific production–this obviously explains slow outputs or gaps. People can be on long-term leave from their job for a multitude of reasons: birth of a child, parental leave as the child gets older, a sick family member, physical illness, mental illness, and bereavement all spring to mind. There is no reason that only ”Parental leave” counts as acceptable leave, which seems to be the standard way leave is talked about by universities and grant agencies in Sweden. The application spaces to fill in leave should therefore not label leave as ”parental”, which only highlights the applicant’s family status. In fact, the leave section shouldn’t be labelled at all. What the form should ask for is periods of long-term leave from employment. Reviewers don’t need to know why you were away as long as it was a legitimate reason according to Swedish law.

There is no quick fix to discrimination, particularly against women, in academia. But taking away information from reviewers that is both unnecessary and potentially bias-inducing would be a small first step.