Is there a scientific aristocracy?

The word aristocracy comes from Greek and means “ruling of the best”, but it is also synonymous with a subset of individuals having an unfair advantage. Do we have an aristocracy in scientific academia? If so, to what extent is it the ruling of the best, and to what extent is it an inequality?

In a professional context, just as with other aspects of life, name means a lot. A researcher’s name is their personal brand, and years of publishing high quality science can build trust in the brand and thus the name. But does being an established name mean you get better treatment than more junior counterparts?

Does the influence of luck decline over a career?

Getting high quality research published is a non-trivial task. In fact, I’d go further than that: it’s desperately hard for many good and some bad reasons. You need the right idea, the right data, the right story; and you need this to be read by the right people at the right time. Napoleon Bonaparte’s question “I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?” seems appropriate for researchers, because luck plays such a pivotal role. Mind you, if you are lucky enough to win some battles/publish some papers in good journals early on, you get the chance to make your own luck. Early winners get to become the aristocrats. They may therefore be more likely to get past publication pinch points.

sir_arthur_wellesley_1st_duke_of_wellington

Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Badass (and lucky) General, Prime Minister and first generation aristocrat. Image from Wikicommons.

Publication pinch points

We face two key pinch points when trying to publish a paper: (1) getting the manuscript sent out to review, and (2) getting over the line from “reject” to “resubmit”. Both of these points are involve gatekeepers making expert decisions that are nonetheless open to some subjectivity. Is this paper of broad enough appeal? Is it scientifically good enough?

We must ask ourselves whether the likelihood of getting over these pinch points is increased when the author list includes a scientific aristocrat. This is, of course, difficult to unpick because senior researchers will write better papers by virtue of experience – they are just as likely to be “ruling of the best” aristocrats as they are “unfair advantage” aristocrats. I argue that double blind reviewing is the only way to unpick the problem.

A plan for a more egalitarian scientific community

Many people exhibit conscious biases, and everybody exhibits unconscious bias. Everybody. Unconscious bias an evolved mechanism our brains use to make decisions. If we force ourselves to bring our unconscious biases into the conscious, we can challenge them and fight them – indeed we need to do this to fight sexism, racism and other prejudices. Alternatively, we can prevent our unconscious biases from occurring by withholding key information from our brains – this is where double blind review comes in.

Let us submit manuscripts with no name list, no institution details and no grant information. No more pre-submission emails saying “I’m about to send you something interesting”; no more big name patronage on papers; no more benefit of the doubt because they’ve published great stuff before. Let only that particular scientific document do the talking. Some journals, for example Nature Communications and American Naturalist offer double blind review. This is a great start, but there still remains a massive problem: if you’re a scientific aristocrat, you are not forced to relinquish the advantage of name.

The best science demands strong competition and a level playing field

Competition to publish is intense, and rightfully so. However, in order for our respective fields to incorporate the best new ideas, there has to be a level playing field; we must be sure that early career researchers have an equal chance of exposing their research to key audiences as established researchers.

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2 thoughts on “Is there a scientific aristocracy?

  1. We do this in some areas in computer science – the most prestigious venues are the top conferences, e.g. SOSP and OSDI in my subfield, where in many cases reviewing is double-blind. (Nature has adopted author-optional double-blind reviewing, but making it optional seems to defeat the entire purpose)

  2. I certainly think fully double-blind is the way forward, and it’s great news that some fields are adopting this. I also totally agree with you about author-optional double-blind review: it had to be all or nothing.

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