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According to Huber, J., Inoua, S., Kerschbamer, R., König-Kersting, C., Palan, S., & Smith, V. L. (2022). Nobel and novice: Author prominence affects peer review (August 16, 2022):

We invite more than 3,300 researchers to review a paper jointly written by a prominent author – a Nobel laureate – and by a relatively unknown author – an early-career research associate -, varying whether reviewers see the prominent author’s name, an anonymized version of the paper, or the less well-known author’s name. We find strong evidence for the status bias: while only 23 percent recommend “reject” when the prominent researcher is the only author shown, 48 percent do so when the paper is anonymized, and 65 percent do so when the little-known author is the only author shown.

The same effect was also replicated in 2006 and 2017, so it's not just one paper making this claim.

Given such a significant bias, would it be ethical to submit one's papers under a false identity? I.e. if you're Maria Ivanova from Moscow State University you might be worried about bias against Russian scientists, so you submit your paper as John Smith from MIT instead to make sure it gets a fair review. Or you might be working for the University of Alabama and worried that your papers won't get reviewed fairly due to the low rankings of your institution, so you instead pretend you work for Cornell.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 18:43
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    As you keep suggesting to use MIT as your false affiliation, I suggest you change the title of your question to "Is it ethical to submit papers under a false identity and affiliation to take advantage of peer review bias?". This seems to be what you are actually after.
    – wimi
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 10:01
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    @wimi peer review bias isn’t supposed to exist though, right? So any reviewer who complains could be pointed out they weren’t supposed to think about the affiliation in the first place. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 11:14
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    "Things are unfair. How can I cheat to make them in my favor." Don't be surprised if people who care about academia are not interested in helping you with your plan.
    – JonathanZ
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 18:44
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    No one is saying it is acceptable. But your question is not about how to eliminate/reduce it, but how might one take advantage of it. "The works is unfair, therefore no one may be judged" should be covered in your Phil 101 class.
    – JonathanZ
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 19:25

5 Answers 5

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As a preliminary observation, I will just note that this phenomenon is a good reason that academic journals should practice blinding of papers sent to peer reviewers. For journals that practice effective blinding of papers, this whole situation cannot arise, so we are really just talking about the journals that don’t use blinding, or don’t do it effectively.

I think some of the answers here are being a bit uncharitable to your question, by making the assumption that deception of the peer reviewers in the process must be coupled with some broader deception of the journal, or even ultimate publication under a false name or affiliation. Ethical problems arise in those latter actions, but they are not necessary for what you want to achieve here. One can imagine an approach in which an author submits a paper to a journal (that does not use blinding) using their correct name and affiliation in the submission system and with correspondence with the editor, but giving a false name and affiliation on the actual document that will be seen by the peer-reviewer. In this case the submitter would presumably be open with the editor about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. If this were drawn to the attention of the editor, it would then be up to the editor to make a decision on whether a deception of their peer reviewer is justified or not. (In practice I doubt a journal editor would agree to this, since they can achieve the same results by blinding papers, without any use of deception.) If the editor is willing to go along with it, one can even imagine further safety protocols being added, such as disclosing the true author of the paper to the reviewer after the review is complete, and giving them some debriefing on the deception and why it occurred. And obviously if the paper were to be accepted and published, it would be published with the correct author name and affiliation, not the one used for deception in the peer review.

If such an approach were to be proposed, it would be quite similar to a number of experiments in academia where a subject group is exposed to a temporary deception to affect their behaviour and then they are debriefed on that deception at the end of the experiment. Ethics panels at universities routinely examine proposals like this to determine whether or not they meet ethics requirements. Typically, such actions will be allowed so long as the deception has a bona fide research purpose, is not too harmful, and so long as the people being deceived are debriefed at the end to be made aware of the deception and its purpose. In the case of a submission of a paper to a journal the difference here is that this is not an experiment, and the only research purpose is to shield existing research work from an adverse peer review effect that is not being dealt with adequately by blinding.

While such a proposal might not be looked on kindly, I’m not convinced that it would be impossible to do this ethically, and certainly without distortion of publication statistics. Nevertheless, the whole idea is somewhat undercut by the fact that it is simpler to just give a blinded paper to the peer reviewer to achieve essentially the same goal.

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    Unfortunately double blind reviews are not practical in fields where publishing pre-prints is the default norm. And you'll need triple blind reviews to avoid editor bias, as the editor can make or break a paper by choosing which reviewer to assign to review the manuscript or just reject it outright on their own, so the editor's bias plays a role here too. Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 2:20
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    @JonathanReez But pre-prints are optional... if a field chooses en masse the convenience of pre-prints over the justice of (say) double blind reviews, then surely they should be held accountable for that decision, rather than it being used to justify foisting dishonesty upon the rest of us?
    – Lou Knee
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 21:16
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    @LouKnee: There might be some practical issues in holding the field of [insert academic speciality here] accountable en masse.
    – Lee Mosher
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 12:21
  • Also note that in some cases (say when publishing in a non-English language, or when the research is of limited geographical interest), the scientific communities are small enough that reviewers can sometimes guess who wrote given article, just by writing style and implicit biases evident in the papers. No amount of blinding is going to make up for that.
    – Arthur
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 14:19
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    @Arthur: I'm at the intersection between a particular type of measurement (vibrational spectroscopy), data analysis (chemometrics) and applications (medical, agriculture). Also there double-blinding would be highly ineffective: groups specialize on subtypes of measurements and particular applications (e.g. disesase) over long times. The combination of measurement technique and disease alone would usually narrow down the possibilities to very few (if not one) group. Plus of course, the paper needs to refer to previous work, and IMHO should point out what is previous own work and what is not. Commented Sep 23, 2022 at 10:46
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It is ethical to submit papers under a pseudonym, see for example this question. Journals do not require you to use your legal name.

But stating an affiliation that you do not have is unethical because you are misrepresenting. It associates your paper with an institution that may not want to be associated with it, and it distorts the publication statistics of that university.

Failing to state your actual affiliation may also put you in breach of contract, because institutions and funding agencies often require you to mention them in the publications made using their funding. Breaking a contract (i.e., committing to do something and then not doing it) is not only unethical but may also get you in legal trouble.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 12:42
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No.

(Edit: this refers to using a false identity, that is, pretending to be a person that doesn’t exist but with the pretense that the person does exist. This is different from using a pseudonym, that is, hiding your own name but not making the misrepresentation that you are a specific other person with an institutional affiliation that you have no right to claim. As @wimi says in their answer, using a pseudonym is perfectly ethical.)

You are describing a Matthew effect (aka “the rich get richer”) in the context of academic publishing, where the notion of being “rich” corresponds to having a good reputation, being employed by a prestigious institution, etc. Your premise is that once a person is “rich” in that sense, it becomes easier for them to get “richer”.

Now, this premise may well be true (I personally believe it is), and it’s even something to be reasonably concerned about. Where things get problematic is when you cite this effect as your rationale for why certain behavior to compensate for the supposed “bias” associated with the effect should be considered ethical even though it involves clear dishonesty.

The thing to keep in mind is that such effects are not unique to academia, and exist in pretty much any industry and walk of life. Having a good reputation, whether it’s in academia, on academia.se, or elsewhere, will often translate into certain advantages and favorable reception for your ideas compared to people who are unknown in the field they are operating in. (Indeed, it's precisely these advantages that are the reason why the notion of "reputation" even exists as a meaningful concept.) And yet, as a general rule we do not condone dishonesty as a means of dealing with the supposed bias of reputational effects. E.g., would it be okay for me to claim to have won some prestigious writing award when I pitch my novel to a publisher, or to state nonexistent work experience on my résumé when I apply for a job? Obviously not. Dishonesty as a solution to the problem (even if it is a real one) of reputational bias is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. So no, it’s not ethical.

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    when I pitch my novel to a publisher => this is unethical because book readers aren't supposed to be impartial and are more likely to read books by writers than won a prestigious award. state nonexistent work experience on my résumé when I apply for a job => this is unethical because past performance correlates with future performance, so your employer is correct to demand the truth about your past. Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 18:04
  • Scientific papers are different because each paper is supposed to be evaluated on its merits alone, regardless of who wrote it, why, and whether or not you've had a beer last week with the author. It's not comparable to job interviews or book publishing. Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 18:05
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    @JonathanReez the “merit” of a paper is not a precisely well-defined concept, and suffers from some of the same reputational biases you’re worried about. In pure math for example, a paper solving an open problem that was posed by a famous (=high reputation) mathematician will often confer that paper with a high degree of perceived “merit”, compared to a paper solving a conjecture of a less well known mathematician. I cannot produce a journal statement of the type you want, but my point is that reputation is somehow “built in” at many different levels to the entire system of evaluating …
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 20:02
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    … scientific work, in a way that makes it impossible (and not even necessarily desirable) to eliminate. Moreover, all the people who participate in this system understand that this is so, whether or not it is made explicit by statements from journals. Perhaps some of them are unhappy about it at some level, but I think most understand that this is an imperfect system but the best one that we’ve come up with to deal with the practical issues of publishing a large quantity of scientific work being generated by many people, while also sorting out the wheat from the chaff.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 20:03
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    @JonathanReez I wouldn’t say “a ton of bias”, and I’m not even sure the word “bias” is completely accurate to use in this context, although it’s probably okay as an approximation. “Bias” suggests unfairness, and I think your view that taking reputation into account is automatically unfair is a bit naive and unrealistic. But yes, I think most people understand that this sort of “bias” does exist to some extent. But it’s neither a secret, nor the reason for outrage and cynicism that you seem to think it is.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 5:20
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My two cents

I do not think this question has anything to do with ethics. Unless you want to conceal your identity for some reasons, it just does not make sense to publish a paper under a fake identity just to be treated fairly. What will you do after that? Telling your colleagues that it is your work but you want to be treated fairly so you have to use the alias John Smith? I think reviewers care more about the quality of the paper than the nationality of the author.

As for the study you mentioned, from my personal perspective, it is not a bias because if someone gets a fast-track peer-review just because they are prominent researchers. They deserve that because their "conditional" (probability of) error will be lower than that of other authors. They have earned that privilege. If they are wrong, it is the job of other researchers or even themself to show that, but in this comment, I implicitly assume that their papers are high-quality.

Also, why does a prominent researcher want to risk their reputation by publishing a low quality paper and hope that it will be accepted as a "high-quality" paper because of his/her reputation?

It is also an UNFAIR experiment to give reviewers the same paper that half of reviewers get the paper with the correct author name and the other half receive the paper with the fake alias John Smith. The average quality of papers written by a prominent professor should be better than a random unknown scientist.

Of course, it does happen sometimes that someone wants to conceal their identity for a valid reason. In my field, the most famous example is probably the Student t-test. William Sealy Gosset published the paper about t-test and t-distribution in 1908 under the pseudoname Student to conceal his identity as his employer does not want him to publish the finding.

It may be the case that someone wants to use a fake identity to publish something controversial that they also want to conceal identity, but generally, it just does not make sense to publish a paper under a fake identity.

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    If you read the linked paper you'll see that the paper was actually written by Vernon L. Smith (2002 Nobel prize winner) and Sabiou Inoua. You can find said paper here. The reviewers were either told the paper is by Smith&Inoua, by Smith alone or by Inoua alone. No fake pseudonyms were used. Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 16:37
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    What will you do after that? => if your institution doesn't object to this approach you can use the fact that your paper got into (say) Science as a data point for a future promotion. And of course your paper would now be seen by more scientists and will help your discipline move forward. Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 16:38
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    it is not a bias because if someone gets a fast-track peer-review just because they are prominent researchers => is this a publicly stated policy of any major scientific journals? As far as I can tell the official policy is that every paper is judged on its own merits. Commented Sep 16, 2022 at 16:43
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Wait a minute!

If you use a pseudonyms, wouldn't you fall under the category of "the little known author is the only author shown"? which results in worst chances for acceptance?

It seems like the only way to improve your chances is by choosing a name of a well known researcher as your fake name. In that case, doing so would be extremely unethical and probably also illegal.

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    The linked papers from 2006 and 2017 have also shown bias towards famous institutions, so putting down MIT instead of Moscow State University should result in a pretty major bump in acceptance rates. Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 18:53
  • @JonathanReez I think that lying about the institute is also illegal, but I am not a lawyer. To me it seems unethical
    – Yanko
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 22:05

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