On blind review

1 Gaps and generics in the blind review process

Journals intend reviews of submissions be blind in order to ensure non-biased treatment of the material under consideration. The main assumption supporting this approach is that when work is presented anonymously, reviewers will set aside judgments concerning the race, gender, age, professional status etc. of the author considered. To provide an image of the reviewer’s mind on this model, it is as if one found an empty space where one previously found opinions about such matters. Call this the gappy thoughts model of blind review.

Blind reviewers do not have gappy thoughts. The content that otherwise would have been associated with an author remains filled. But it is filled generically.

Suppose a professor teaching a mixed graduate and upper-level undergraduate course grades course materials anonymously. Suppose further that in this class, upper-level undergraduates outnumber graduates by a factor of roughly 2 to 1. In this situation, for any given paper, the professor will be somewhat more likely to assume the work he is grading was written by an undergraduate, unless content strongly suggests otherwise. And so, for instance, sentential ambiguities will be more liable to be understood in a way that assumes less, rather than more understanding on the part of the student.

Similarly, if a reviewer assumes that most submissions to the journal requesting her feedback are term papers written by graduate students, she will be more apt to suppose grad student authorship in ambiguous cases. Conversely, if the reviewer assumes that only established scholars contribute to the same journal, she will be more apt to assume – perhaps consciously, perhaps not – that the paper written on topic x by so-and-so’s doctoral student was written by his mentor.

More generally, the practice of blind review doesn’t essentially contribute to the diversity of philosophy, if by this we understand something more than the adoption of majority standards by non-dominant groups. Instead, it encourages non-dominant groups to conform to the style and substance of the dominant group: it encourages conformity to the generic. Thus, blind review tends toward a stronger kind of equality than its intended aim would suggest: sameness.[1]

2 The situation of blind review with respect to the author and authorship

Anonymity tends toward irreverence. For proof of this, see the internet. Therefore, work encountered anonymously that does not conform to the standards of the philosophical community is more likely to be judged as failing to meet those standards than challenging or surpassing them. This is part of why authors try to subvert the blind review process in all the ways listed here. Established scholars may do so, for instance, via conspicuous self-citation. Less established scholars may do so by circulating their work among more established scholars, or by publishing drafts on sites like academia.edu, where they can get feedback from interested readers.

Two likely consequences follow.

First, to the degree that it is flouted, blind review may end up hurting the very people it intends to help: less established or otherwise marginalized scholars without strong connections to others in their field, given that such people are the most likely victims of the irreverence frequently accompanying anonymity.

Second, assuming that the values of a group are more likely to be internalized by those on the margins seeking its acceptance than those squarely in it, marginalized members would be less likely to do things that might undermine the egalitarian ideals the process of blind review intends to support. And so, for instance, they would be less likely to do some of the very things that would help them – for instance, sharing their work with others – for fear of undermining the aims of the blind review process. In this way, we witness a tension between two growing aspects of both academic philosophy and culture at large: the strong egalitarianism embodied in western liberal notions of fairness, and the strong communitarianism present in the ever-increasing connectedness of our world.

The hidden link tying together the whole process may well be this: the ideal of the scholar as solitary genius. This is likely the background assumption without which it makes little sense: to discourage interaction, rather than encourage it; to assume that reviewers will take a positive, reverent attitude toward an author, rather than a more vulgar stance; to expect inspired but remarkably different viewpoints to traditional questions to be celebrated rather than denigrated.

[1] This isn’t to say that blind review should be abandoned. It may still be the best viable alternative among many bad options.