Peer review has many aspects where bias is inevitable. Acknowledging this is the first step to managing it.
There is a platonic ideal of peer review in which reviewers are impartial and knowledgeable, allowing editors to make ‘correct’ decisions on the scientific studies or grant applications that have been submitted. In the real world this is impossible to achieve. The two requirements for a reviewer, in-depth knowledge and impartiality, stand in direct conflict with each other, connected by some loose analogue of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
A terrific discussion about the contradiction at the heart of expert peer review and engaged collaborative research.
There is also the problem of professional relationships. Science is not a solitary pursuit. Scientists work in collaboration with others, as evidenced by the number of authors that appear on any of the articles in this or any other issue of Nature Plants; looking back, even the most eminent researcher was once a postgrad or postdoc in somebody else’s lab. There is a whole social network of relationships connecting one scientist with the next. In the field of mathematics this web has been mapped with the ‘Erdős number’, which records the number of steps of co-authorship that separate an individual from the highly collaborative Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős. Those who have co-authored a paper with Erdős have an Erdős number of 1, those who have co-authored a paper with a co-author of Erdős have an Erdős number of 2, co-authors of co-authors of co-authors of Erdős have a score of 3, and so on. A similar numerical recreation has also been applied in the film industry, centred on the actor Kevin Bacon. Perhaps reviewers’ opinions should be weighted by a variant of this metric.
Conflict resolution. (2021) Nature Plants 7, 1435. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-021-01033-6
Publisher (Open Access): https://www.nature.com/articles/s41477-021-01033-6