Mollie Gerver recently completed her PhD at LSE, and now teaches at Leeds University. Her research is in the ethics of refugee repatriation. Hers is the first post in a series on:
Ethics in Academic Events
As theorists of justice and professional ethicists we are used to scrutinizing the practices of others. Is it not about time that we turned our analytical skills and discerning moral sensitivities on ourselves? Inspired by discussions at the closing of the workshop ‘Global Justice and Global Health Ethics Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young’, this series of posts seeks to examine our own actions and practices and explore the moral dilemmas of the academy.
At the age of sixteen Art Davis started to learn the double-bass. By the 1960s he was playing alongside Judy Garland and Louis Armstrong, but was consistently turned down by symphony orchestras. He suspected this was because he was black, so in 1969 he asked the New York Philharmonic to use a screen during auditions, hiding his identity from the selection panel. His request was denied, he sued the orchestra for discrimination, and lost the case, but had nonetheless set off a revolution: other orchestras began putting up screens for blind auditions, and within two decades began recruiting significantly more women and minorities.
As the world of music adopted blind auditioning, the world of academia adopted blind reviewing. Journals began hiding the names of authors from reviewers, and conference organizers followed suit, requesting that authors send in papers anonymized. Though blind reviewing is increasingly the norm, it is far from universal. Academics often organise workshops without a review process, inviting specific scholars to spend a day or two exchanging ideas. Foregoing the review process has major advantages. It is often easier to work with those we know. If I see someone regularly at my university, conferences, and the pub, I may be more comfortable presenting them with untested arguments, and more able to work on a paper with them across an extended time frame. Just as musicians have jam sessions without blind auditions, academics have workshops without blind reviewing.
There remains, nonetheless, major ethical concerns in foregoing blind reviewing in even informal settings. By inviting those we know, we risk marginalizing those we don’t. The more we organise around the networks we form, the more insular we may become. This is problematic not only because we may forego ideas outside of our networks. We may also be selecting for over-represented groups, forming cliques where women and minorities are less represented. This phenomenon has been widely documented outside of academia. In the United States, white professionals are more likely to invite white colleagues to apply for jobs or attend meetings, reinforcing inequality. In Europe, men are more likely to be gatekeepers to informal discussions, and this may undermine women’s access to career opportunities.
One way to avoid this problem in academia is to invite colleagues we know who happen to be from under-represented group. Though this solution may increase diversity, it can be demeaning. I remember being invited to a workshop and wondering if my gender was the reason. The thought was disheartening. I would have preferred to be selected through a blind review process, to ensure I was selected for my work, rather than my identity.
Rather than instituting affirmative action, we could instead select a segment of papers via a blind review process, whilst maintaining a non-blind process for the rest. A workshop might select six scholars non-anonymously and six scholars anonymously. This would ensure collaboration with those we know, whilst opening networks to those we don’t.
One disadvantage of this solution would be its time-consuming nature. If we reviewed papers for every workshop, we may organise fewer workshops. But the reduction in total workshops may be a worthwhile cost, if we can ensure greater fairness overall. This is especially important for workshops using public funds. These funds often pay for free jollies, like flights to distant cities, meals at nice restaurants, and excursions to fun locations. These perks are useful: it is easier to get to know someone and their work while chatting over prosecco near the Coliseum than in a classroom in a university. But if workshops are formed using money that is not ours, and if the money is essential for forming networks, we ought to distribute access to these networks in a manner that is non-discriminatory. Blind reviewing is the best mechanism for such non-discrimination.
Some may worry that, if blind reviewing were extended across too many domains, we may be unable to informally collaborate. Workshops are effective because they are relaxed, and this relaxation is easier to obtain if we invite those we know, or those writing on similar projects. We ought to limit blind reviews, some may claim, to major conferences, just like musicians limit blind auditions to symphony orchestras.
But there are mechanisms for ensuring workshops are informal even if a blind element is added. It is often the small scale of workshops that make them relaxed and collegial, rather than the transparent selection process. And given the advantages of relaxing and collegial gatherings, it is even more important we institute a fair submission procedure for access. Just as Art Davis improved access in the music world with screens, we can improve access to workshops with anonymity, increasing opportunities and creating fairer selection processes for all.
For details of the conference for the workshop “Global Justice and Global Health Ethics: Exploring the Influence of Iris Marion Young”, go to: http://www.irisyoung2016.de