The Strange Attack on Blind Reviewing

Progressive scholars desire ideological uniformity, not truth.

Two years ago, the Great Awokening came for blind auditions in America’s top orchestras. Any educational or cultural differences were insufficient explanations for the disparities between white and black players in these ensembles, and so the New York Times’s classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini, asserted racism as the cause. Take down the curtain, Tommasini advised, and let racial preferences be the judge.

Now, a similar critique has come for the use of blind reviewing, an academic gold standard in scholarly journals, whereby neither the author nor the reviewer knows the other’s identity. Ostensibly, this review process removes the ability for bias of any kind—be it racial, reputational, or otherwise—to influence an article’s chance of inclusion in an academic journal. Instead, merit and merit alone is the guide.

However, in an article for Inside Higher Ed, one academic argues for open reviews. This author, Kim Manturuk, had brought together a conference to discuss instructional practices best suited to the pandemic era. To her shock and horror, a few papers authored by Christians made it through the double-blind review process. Whereas the ancient Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides recommended we “hear the truth, whoever speaks it,” Manturuk, a modern-day Pharisee, suggests we hear the truth only when it is spoken by the ideologically pure.

Modern-day Pharisees suggest we hear the truth only when it is spoken by the ideologically pure.Manturuk laments that her conference “accepted a submission from … authors representing multiple universities with stated policies discriminating against LGBTQ students, faculty and staff.” Of course, she gives no explanation of what these policies are. Regardless, she continues, “we created spaces for messages that are antithetical to our values.”

On the surface, the rejections of blind auditions and blind reviews represent the same change applied to different judgements. However, the justification for the change in academic reviews is fundamentally different. In the case of classical orchestras, Tommasini argued for equal outcomes by race. Manturuk’s, however, is an even more ideological project, and so it is more insidious.

An orchestra with an equal distribution of white and black musicians still plays music. Its method of acceptance may or may not be ethical, but its fundamental telos or purpose remains unchanged. However, the removal of double-blind reviews changes the purpose of scholarly journals from the pursuit, discovery, and publication of new truths at the frontiers of human knowledge to the dissemination of one distinct worldview.

Under this regime, no longer would a journal accept a piece of scholarship because it contains a groundbreaking discovery, rightfully questions a standing paradigm, or advances human knowledge. Rather, “conference organizers and journal editors need to think about how they can ensure that the work they disseminate is consistent with their values.”

This prioritization of “values” over truth is nothing new. The Port Huron Statement, arguably the most influential exposition of the protests of the 1960s student radicals, disparaged the view that universities exist first and foremost to pursue truth. Instead, the authors saw the university, with its institutional clout in society, as the base from which to launch their new left agenda. Under their system, all scholars would ask not what is true but, “if we wanted to change society, how would we do it?”

Asking scholarship to advance an agenda or worldview carries an almost religious undertone. We once held up Galileo as a near-martyr in opposition to that cause. The then-ruling authority did not like his advancement of the Copernican solar system—Galileo’s work did not disseminate ideas that were consistent with the church’s values—so they placed him under house arrest, a 17th-century cancellation from the ruling elite.

Today’s wokesters are the inheritors of the Spanish Inquisition. All new ideas must first be vetted, not for their alignment with reality or quality but for whether their conclusions advance the biases of those in power. Once shining examples of enlightenment ideals, our universities are regressing to uncritical, religious zealotry.

Under this system, scholars ask not what is true but, “If we wanted to change society, how would we do it?”No practice or institution is above critique, and there are certainly reasons to be skeptical of double-blind reviews. Humorously, there exist double-blind reviews of double-blind reviews. The evidence of their efficacy is mixed, and it is unclear whether they actually improve the quality of academic journals and the articles therein.

For example, one meta-analysis draws attention to a handful of different studies. In one, the use of double-blind or open reviews did not improve the reviewer’s likelihood of noticing or identifying weaknesses deliberately placed in an altered paper. Similarly, the acceptance rate of scholars at prestigious (or questionable) institutions did not vary depending on the type of review used—open or blind.

That being said, the meta-analysis does conclude that double-blind studies are particularly useful in the “muddy middle.” Biologists at Harvard and chemists at MIT likely achieved their positions because of intelligence and skill. With or without their names attached to submissions, their work is of a high quality. The same goes for the shoddy work of a mediocre professor at a run-of-the-mill state university. Reputable authors are reputable for a reason, and insignificant scholars likewise. But in the middle, where judgment calls are really needed, blind reviews are essential.

Of course, there are credible arguments for open reviews. Revealing an author’s identity could theoretically benefit a reviewer by providing information about an author’s former accomplishments, publications, and citations. Furthermore, identifying information could make the sifting and winnowing process more efficient, thus allowing time and effort to be placed elsewhere.

I include this brief discussion on the efficacy of blind reviews not necessarily to defend or discredit them but, rather, to demonstrate the nature of such critiques. The previously mentioned meta-analysis considers whether blind reviews do, in fact, improve the quality of journals and ensure acceptance on the basis of merit. Quality and merit remain the true north. Manturuk, conversely, waves away the pursuit of quality, merit, and truth to focus instead on the advancement of her own agenda.

At stake in this debate is far more than the quality of this or that academic journal. Instead, Manturuk’s argument can be seen as a continuation of the effort to reshape the very purpose of our universities. It should be stringently opposed.

Daniel Buck is a middle-school English teacher, a senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute, and the author of the new book What is Wrong with Our Schools?