April 17, 2014 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

One of my areas of research focus in bioethics is known as the responsible conduct of research (RCR) (a.k.a. research integrity). Research on research integrity covers a range of different norms and practices including authorship and publication ethics, research misconduct (fabrication, falsification and plagiarism), responsible mentorship, peer review, and RCR education among others. I have written on several of these topics in our AMBI blogs.

One of the topics I am interested in chatting about today is bias in the academic setting, but even more generally in the workplace. Much about research methodology aims to reduce or eliminate bias. For example, the experimental scientific method attempts to reduce bias by having proper controls, blinding researchers, and employing statistics so that we don’t over interpret our findings. Sociologists and other qualitative researchers may declare their biases when reporting research so the reader knows where the researcher is coming from. The entire concept of declaring conflicts of interest also aim to permit others to know what potential interest(s) the researcher may have which could bias their results. Moreover, the peer review process, which academia heavily relies on, aims to reduce bias in research. Peer review is not only used in the context of evaluating research, it also evaluates academic scholars for jobs, committee memberships, awards and scholarships, and other entitlements. One recent study done by Drs. Daniele Fanelli and John Ioannidis showed the overestimation of effect sizes in behavioral research. Here the researchers performed a meta-analysis of meta-analyses (cleverly called meta meta-analysis) and found that researchers working in the behavioral, but not biomedical, sciences tended to exaggerate effects that were not supported by the data. Most interestingly, this exaggerated effect was heightened if the research had one or more US authors. While this sort of bias in the reporting of research may at first glance seem relatively benign, it actually has significant consequences because other researchers build on the results of previously published work and accumulatively, our social policies and clinical practices are based on evidence collected from such studies. Yet bias can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes in the academic and research context, some of which I think hits more personally to individual researchers.

Research on research integrity has shown the presence of bias based on gender, status (e.g., rank, position), institutional affiliation, and race in the peer review process. One relatively recent and interesting study published in 2011 in Science showed racial bias in research funding. Here, researchers examined the success rates of National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grant applicants and found that applicants of Asian descent were 4% and African-Americans were 13% less likely to receive research funding compared to whites. Even when the researchers controlled for the applicant’s country of origin, educational background, training and pedigree, previous research awards, publication record and employer characteristics, black applicants were 10% less likely to receive NIH funding. Being of East Indian descent, the thought of being ranked lower in obtaining research funds because of racial bias is just plain scary. Yet this and other types of biases, specific to individuals or groups of individuals, in academia might be all too common.

Another type of bias one can see in academia perhaps may be characterized more in terms of favoritism. Favoritism is a bias where you give preferential treatment to an individual or group of individuals over others with equal claims. Being partial to others may be human nature, but impartiality is something that should be achieved in the academic work environment. The workplace setting is where I have personally experienced bias towards me and seen others also fall victim to unfair treatment. Now in our politically correct world, we are fully aware that bias, favoritism and prejudice should be eliminated wherever possible and we know not to behave in such unjust ways. Previous trends where higher pay or promotion might go to a white male over women or minorities are big no no’s in the workplace and most workplaces have equal employment policies, and for example, many large institutions simply provide pay according to rank to eliminate the potential for such biases. While bias in the workplace may not be so overt, it is not to say it does not exist. Social psychology research now shows that people can be unconsciously biased (a.k.a. hidden bias). Hidden bias creeps up, as the term suggests, unconsciously, and we subjectively rationalize to explain why someone, for example, might not deserve the promotion, fellowship, award, or why some student should not be permitted to go to the conference or have their name as author on the manuscript. But the factors we make up are unfounded and actually due to personal biases rather than rational factors. Let me provide you with an example of unconscious bias in the workplace.

An interesting report from Metropolis British Columbia’s Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Diversity titled “Why do some employers prefer to interview Matthew, but not Samir?” examined call-back rates from resumes sent to online job posts across three major metropolis Canadian cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. They found that resumes containing English-sounding names were 35% more likely to receive a call-back despite having equivalent qualifications of those resumes containing Indian or Chinese names. They followed-up by asking recruiters why they believe name discrimination might occur, especially given that these are major ethnically diverse cities. Recruiters reported that they believe that employers view names as a sign that the applicant may lack critical language or social skills. This is consistent with the unconscious bias theory that despite applicants having language and other proficiencies listed in the resume, the concerns employers raise to eliminate applicants are factually incorrect. While this example is perhaps not directly applicative to the academic context, similar sorts of unconscious biases might occur all too frequently in academia. So how do we stop it? Well this is not so easy to do, but let me suggest a few ways academic departments can try.

Keep an eye out for Part II of this blog next month.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.