Bias in Research Publication

Bias in Research Publication
Published on April 16, 2022

Many books and articles have been written about how human bias influences decision-making. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow presents bias in a dichotomy. “System 1” represents a fast, instinctive, and emotional response, while “System 2” is a slower, deliberate, and logical way of thinking. Dan Ariely also discusses bias in Predictably Irrational. According to Ariely, the key aspects of a human’s irrational decision-making process include relativity, loss, the concept of “free”, ownership, and choices.

Authors, reviewers, and editors all have their own biases in the research publication process. Bias can impact how authors conduct and present their research, how reviewers decide what a “good” or “bad” research paper is, and what editors decide to publish. This article discusses eight types of biases impacting the research process.

 

Conflict of Interest

A conflict of interest is when someone involved with multiple parties encounters a situation where the interests of these parties are incompatible. Financial interests are the most common interests.

Whom does it affect?

Authors may experience conflicts of interest when conducting research for an organization or agency. If an agency wants a research study to back their decision, the author may report the positive impact of this decision, even if there is more evidence of a negative effect. The author may do this to get the paper published, get paid, or maintain job security. 

Editors or Reviewers also experience conflicts of interest. If the author is a donor to the university where the editor works, the editor may publish the paper to maintain a good relationship. Another example is publication fees. Editors may accept papers in order to collect the fees. Not all fees cause conflicts of interest. Some fees (such as submission fees) don't influence the editor's final decision much. 

 

False Consensus Bias

False consensus is when people assume their personal qualities, characteristics, beliefs, and actions are shared by the general population. 

Whom does it affect?

Authors suffer from false consensus if they believe everyone agrees with the ideas presented in their research because they think these ideas fall within everyone else’s experience and knowledge. 

Editors or reviewers may suffer from false consensus bias when reviewing a paper that doesn’t align with their beliefs. This bias can lead them to disregard and not publish the paper, as they believe the information is incorrect, even if it actually is correct. 

 

Framing Cognitive Bias

Framing cognitive bias refers to when the same information is presented in different formats, and thus it is interpreted differently based on its presentation.

Whom does it affect? 

In the research process, how an author presents their argument can influence whether or not they are published.

This can be a major issue for editors and reviewers during the review process. If they don’t like how an author writes about their research, based on their preference of format rather than actual content, it can affect whether the paper is published. 

 

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias means someone places more meaning in information supporting their own beliefs, even if they aren’t strongly supported with solid data and evidence. On the other hand, a person may discount new information simply because it doesn’t uphold their beliefs. 

Whom does it affect? 

Authors experience confirmation bias if they start researching without an open mind and instead only want to prove their own ideas as correct. These personal biases can affect which observations are considered and included in the paper and how the collected data or the results of the study are interpreted in the paper. 

Reviewers and Editors can also suffer from confirmation bias. If the reviewer or editor can’t keep their own beliefs from interfering with the review, it can lead to the paper not getting published. 

 

Anchoring bias

Anchoring bias is when someone uses the first piece of information they learn about a topic as a benchmark for interpreting any other data collected.

Whom does it affect? 

Authors may encounter anchoring bias when conducting their research. It’s a major concern if an author is looking at data that showcases outliers and is basing their research on this data that is outside the norm. This becomes a bigger issue when the author disregards any data contradicting that initial data.

 

Halo effect

The halo effect happens when one characteristic or trait about a person shapes your opinion of their actions or other traits or characteristics. A person may have an overall positive or negative perception of someone based on this one trait, even if their actions point to the contrary.  

Whom does it affect?

One example of the halo effect is if reviewers or editors realize an author is from a prestigious institution such as Harvard, the reviewer or editor might automatically think the research paper is of excellent quality, even if it isn’t. 

 

Affinity bias

When a person has subconscious preferences toward someone with similar qualities and experiences, this is known as affinity bias.

Whom does it affect? 

Reviewers and Editors may experience affinity bias if they think the author is credible based on the reviewer or editor’s association with the author’s institution or company. One example of this association is if an editor or reviewer is an alumnus of the same university as the author.

 

Publication Bias

Publication bias is when the outcome of a research study influences the decision to publish the paper. One common issue is that research papers are more likely to get published if the effects they find are statistically significant, versus if their findings are not significant. 

Whom does it affect?

If a research study doesn’t find any significant effect, the authors may not try to publish it. And even if they submit it as a paper, editors or reviewers probably won’t publish it. Since these non-significant effects are not published anywhere, another author, unaware of this prior research, may conduct the same research study hoping to find significant effects. This can happen several times until, eventually, one research study finds significant effects due to pure chance (or unethical data selection), and that paper is published, despite the many studies finding no significant effects. 

 

Conclusion

Overall, bias can permeate many aspects of the research process. There are ways to mitigate bias, such as reviewers upholding reviewing standards set in place by the journal policies. The biggest issue is that most biases are subconscious, so authors, reviewers, and editors must take the time to work through their biases. 

One of the best ways to avoid bias in the research process is through technology, especially algorithms implemented in computer codes. This eliminates the human bias in many steps of the process and allows authors to get their work evaluated based on the content, not editors' opinions.

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2022, Erin Nordhof, "Bias in Research Publication," PaperScore.

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