Offering authors a choice: introduction of optional double-blind peer review

Kristopher McNeilla, Paige J. Novakb and Peter J. Vikeslandcde
aInstitute for Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. E-mail:
bDepartment of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. E-mail:
cDepartment of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA. E-mail:
dVirginia Tech Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) Sustainable Nanotechnology Center (VTSuN), Blacksburg, Virginia, USA
eCenter for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT), Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA

Many of us are aware that implicit bias is a problem not only in society as a whole, but also in science, where it is well established that it can harm the career advancement of women scientists, for example. Studies of gender bias abound, but we highlight a couple that illustrate the point: (1) Students in an online course rated instructors significantly higher if they were identified as male, regardless of their actual gender (MacNell et al., 2015).1 (2) Faculty of both genders rated identical laboratory manager candidates as significantly more or less competent based on gender and also offered a higher starting salary to the candidates identified as male (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012).2 The Royal Society of Chemistry has been conducting its own research into equity in publishing and has found that author/researcher gender resulted in “statistically significant differences…at each step of the publishing process”.3

Gender is one dimension of bias and it intersects many others, including race, ethnicity, country of origin, sexuality, and socioeconomic class. In science, affiliation and perceived status are recognized as important drivers of bias. In a study of actual peer review results for postdoctoral fellowships, being male or having an association with one of the reviewers (who, incidentally, did not participate in the discussion or ranking of that candidate because of a conflict of interest) resulted in a significant benefit to their overall score. Indeed, in each case (affiliation and gender), the “bonus” for being male or being affiliated with a reviewer was equivalent to publishing three extra papers in Science or Nature or 20 extra papers in a well-regarded disciplinary journal (Wennerås and Wold, 1997).4 An experiment comparing single- versus double-blind reviews for a highly competitive computer science conference found that authors who were “famous” or from a top university or company were significantly more likely to be accepted when undergoing single-blind review (Tomkins et al., 2017).5 No gender impact was observed in that study.5

Although the peer review of one’s manuscripts is only one small part of one’s career, we, the Editors-in-Chief of Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts (ESPI), Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology (ESWRT), and Environmental Science: Nano (ES:Nano), consider it an important part that we can positively impact. It is for this reason that we are excited to stand together to offer a double-blind reviewing option for our journals. Our hope is that, although this will not change the entire review process, it will help ameliorate unintentional and/or implicit bias in one stage of the process.

We, along with the Royal Society of Chemistry, feel that an important advancement towards tackling bias is to offer more choice in a field where single-blind reviews remain the norm. Since double-blind peer review has been offered (from 9th September 2019 for ES:Nano and 7th October 2019 for ESWRT and ESPI), 15%, 10%, and 21% of submissions to ES:Nano, ESWRT, and ESPI have been received under the new double-blind option. We know from other journals and fields that have tried this (e.g., radiation oncology, Bennett et al., 2018)6 that many authors prefer double-blind reviews. Our hope is that the opportunity of double-blinded reviews will bring about a “new normal” within our field and will attract everyone’s attention to the challenges of implicit bias. It is only through community participation that this practice will truly be considered as among the norm, and it is only with increasing awareness and efforts from each and every one of us that implicit bias can be reduced, and we hope, eventually eliminated.


Views expressed in this editorial are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Notes and references

  1. L. MacNell, A. Driscoll and A. N. Hunt, What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching, Innov. High Educ., 2015, 40, 291–303 CrossRef.
  2. C. A. Moss-Racusin, J. F. Dovidio, V. L. Brescoll, M. J. Graham and J. Handelsman, Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 2012, 109, 16474–16479 CrossRef CAS PubMed.
  4. C. Wennerås and A. Wold, Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-review, Nature, 1997, 387, 341–343 CrossRef PubMed.
  5. A. Tomkins, M. Zhang and W. D. Heavlin, Reviewer Bias in Single- Versus Double-blind Peer Review, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 2017, 114, 12708–12713 CrossRef CAS PubMed.
  6. K. E. Bennett, R. Jagsi and A. Zietman, Radiation Oncology Authors and Reviewers Prefer Double-blind Peer Review, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A., 2018, 115, E1940 CrossRef CAS PubMed.

This journal is © The Royal Society of Chemistry 2020