Peer review is the most common method for allocation of research funding. But the method is not always entirely objective or neutral. As a result, it may be disadvantageous to both women and critical and interdisciplinary research in general.
A majority of Swedish and international research funding is allocated based on quality assessments conducted within the scientific community; more exactly, scientists and researchers assess other scientists and researchers in the same or related disciplines. This process is called peer review and the resulting decisions have a strong impact on the quality of the research produced and the conditions faced by scientists and researchers. Peer review is often thought of as a scientific needle’s eye through which only the very best contributions are allowed to pass. The model is well established also in other academic contexts, for example in connection with publication in scientific journals and recruitments for various positions.
The purpose of peer review is to ensure that only the best research is granted funding, that only the most qualified candidates are hired and that the most interesting articles are published. When women as a group are less successful than men as a group in various assessment processes, some say that the reason for this is that they do not perform as well. But scientific studies have revealed mechanisms in the system that systematically favour certain groups. When this happens, the academic system has failed one of its most fundamental tasks – to assess scholarly qualifications and quality correctly.
In their research review Fördelning eller förfördelning? (2015), Fredrik Bondestam and Louise Grip from the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research show that the whole process, from the call for research proposals to the final decision, is gendered in a number of ways. Women’s application behaviour is often considered to be non-standard, or to deviate from the norm, while men’s application behaviour is considered more normal, or neutral. It is also common that the lack of gender equality is attributed to the fact that there are more male professors – and professors generally attract more research funding. In a sector that is strongly characterised by gender inequality, this is a rather poor explanation. In addition to outstanding performance, one reason certain individuals have become professors may be that they have the ‘right’ gender and that they therefore have benefitted from the gender inequality in academia.
Peer review may also be disadvantageous to critical and interdisciplinary research, such as gender research. Always letting established researchers decide what research should be granted funding implies a risk of stagnation. The system is poorly suited to identify interdisciplinary projects of high scientific quality, since reviewers may lack interdisciplinary knowledge. Those who assemble peer review groups need to show an awareness of the fact that it is practically impossible for reviewers to make 100% objective assessments. Reviewers have often invested large parts of their careers in very specific research perspectives, and thus there is a risk that they unconsciously are more positive to certain types of research.