Richard Threlfall
Richard Threlfall
Editor, Asian Journal of Organic Chemistry, Wiley
Source: monkeybusinessimages
Source: monkeybusinessimages

What do a Swedish furniture retailer, a nineteenth century inventor, and peer review have in common? On the face of it, not much, but recently I read a book  that made me think all three might be more connected than you might think.

For those of you (perhaps fortunate few) who have never been into one of its stores, IKEA has a reputation for reasonably priced and trendy furniture that is the staple of many a student and young homeowner’s shopping lists. You go into a store, choose what you like, consume excess meatballs (that’s another story), pick up your flat-packed furniture, return home and assemble it yourself.

A lesser-known fact about IKEA is that it lends its name to something called “the IKEA effect.” The principal idea is that when we directly invest effort in creating “something,” we generally expect that “something” to be worth far more than if we had had no input into the creative process. Whether “the IKEA effect” is the secret to IKEA’s success is a moot point here, but it is an interesting phenomenon and is an example of a common unconscious bias that we are all subject to everyday.

Another example of such a bias is the so-called “NIH effect.” Nothing to do with the US National Institutes of Health, the “not invented here” effect is the principle of not using or acknowledging an invention as better than your own just because it was invented by someone else. Thomas Edison was the inventor and a staunch proponent of direct current (DC) who battled hard against the introduction of alternating current (AC) in the early days of public electricity supply because he believed so much in his own invention. He even went as far as publicly electrocuting stray animals that were unfortunate enough to cross his path to demonstrate how dangerous AC was. He and those poor animals were, if in very different ways, victims of the NIH effect.

That got me thinking, not about torturing defenseless animals, but about whether peer review is also subject to such biases? According to the IKEA and NIH effects, a “creator” overvalues his or her work and a “user/evaluator” doesn’t readily acknowledge the value of other people’s ideas. Is peer review then really a struggle between over-eager authors, who can’t see anything beyond their rose-tinted view of their own work, and dismissive referees who think everyone else is not as smart as them?

As far as I know, no-one has yet studied whether such biases exist in peer review of academic papers (it would be great if anyone knows of such studies, please contact me if you do), but if unconscious effects exist in peer review, and there’s no reason to suspect they don’t, what could you do about them? After all, by its very definition a referee or author can’t know that they may be suffering from an unconscious bias about a piece of work. Even if you were to point out the existence of such effects, most people will overestimate their ability to effectively recognize and combat it (and like most biases, this one also has a name: “illusory superiority,” or perhaps it should be more aptly called the “I’d know if I was doing that” effect).

More than trying to influence anyone else’s behaviour in peer review, it may be that the greatest opportunity that the IKEA and NIH effects offer us is that of introspection. Before we suffer from the IKEA effect, might we want to take a detailed look at our own work to see if it really is the best we can do, or can we objectively (as far as possible) agree with that critical referee and make some improvements? In being that critical referee, might we want to ask if we really are finding fault with a piece of work, or are we just criticizing an idea that someone else has had because the NIH effect tells us that our ideas are usually better?

While I don’t expect that bringing these biases to anyone’s attention will drastically change the way science is done, it is just another reminder that scientists, who are held up as beacons of objectivity in society, are just as human as the rest of us. If a little bit of subjectivity creeps into things every now and again, it shouldn’t be unexpected, but should, in fact, be completely expected as a matter of course.

So the next time you receive a critical report from a referee who clearly hasn’t appreciated the sheer brilliance of your paper, you can take some comfort in thinking that he or she is likely just a latter-day incarnation of Edison and is probably just a tiny bit jealous that it wasn’t his/her idea. That is, of course, until the blue and yellow behemoth of self-assembled furniture rolls along and reminds you that you actually might be seeing things from a slightly biased point of view yourself. Pass the meatballs.

Disclaimer: No innocent animals were electrocuted in the making of this blog post.

1. Ariely, D; The Upside of Irrationality, 2011, Harper-Collins USA. The Edison example discussed in this post is taken from this book, which is an excellent introduction to everyday human biases. I highly recommend it if you have a passing interest in knowing how you and your fellow humans really see the world!

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