Despite its fundamental role in modern science, the process of peer review is not without its shortcomings. Recently, journals have had to retract hundreds of published manuscripts due to manipulation of the peer review process by authors. Unscrupulous authors can obviously benefit from such unethical behavior; but, when considering potential problems with peer review, it is also necessary to consider factors that can potentially influence the outcomes of reviews.
New research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal examined grant applications submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research between 2012 and 2014 in an evaluation of potential biases during peer review. The researchers found that in the competitive process of receiving grant funds, several factors can contribute to the outcome of the peer review: gender of applicant, gender of reviewer, reviewer experience, reviewer success rate, and reviewer conflict of interest. Taken together, the influence of these factors can alter the evaluation of a proposed study and prevent it from receiving funding.
The grant application stage is highly competitive and authors submitting applications deserve to receive fair and unbiased reviews. However, as this study pointed out, there are factors that affect the rate of success for grant applicants. As the authors note, the identified factors are largely systematic and can be addressed through monitoring and policy initiatives.
While the identification of factors that affect the outcome of grant applications could be considered embarrassing, it is important that all sources of potential bias in peer review be identified and addressed. For the benefit of both the scientists and the general public, it is important that potentially valuable research not be overlooked at the peer review stage.
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