On Testing for Biases in Peer Review

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 32 (NeurIPS 2019)

AuthorFeedback Bibtex MetaReview Metadata Paper Reviews Supplemental


Ivan Stelmakh, Nihar Shah, Aarti Singh


We consider the issue of biases in scholarly research, specifically, in peer review. There is a long standing debate on whether exposing author identities to reviewers induces biases against certain groups, and our focus is on designing tests to detect the presence of such biases. Our starting point is a remarkable recent work by Tomkins, Zhang and Heavlin which conducted a controlled, large-scale experiment to investigate existence of biases in the peer reviewing of the WSDM conference. We present two sets of results in this paper. The first set of results is negative, and pertains to the statistical tests and the experimental setup used in the work of Tomkins et al. We show that the test employed therein does not guarantee control over false alarm probability and under correlations between relevant variables, coupled with any of the following conditions, with high probability can declare a presence of bias when it is in fact absent: (a) measurement error, (b) model mismatch, (c) reviewer calibration. Moreover, we show that the setup of their experiment may itself inflate false alarm probability if (d) bidding is performed in non-blind manner or (e) popular reviewer assignment procedure is employed. Our second set of results is positive, in that we present a general framework for testing for biases in (single vs. double blind) peer review. We then present a hypothesis test with guaranteed control over false alarm probability and non-trivial power even under conditions (a)--(c). Conditions (d) and (e) are more fundamental problems that are tied to the experimental setup and not necessarily related to the test.