Duke is hiring an ecologist. And in an attempt to avoid bias, the initial stage of the search will be conducted on redacted applications. Applicants are asked to provide two copies of their cv’s, research statements, and teaching statements: a normal copy, and a copy from which the following information is redacted:
- All mentions of the applicant’s name, date of birth, birthplace, citizenship, ethnicity, and gender.
- The names of all co-authors on publications. The only authorship information to be provided is the number of authors and the applicant’s place in the author list. So for instance, your cv would list publications like this: “Second of two authors. 1974. Disturbance, patch formation and community structure. Proceeding of the National Academy of Science USA 71:2744-2747.”
- The names and contact details of references.
Presumably, you’d also need to redact the names of PIs and co-PIs from grants, the names of co-authors of conference presentations, and various other bits of information, but the ad doesn’t say that.
I think this is an interesting experiment to address an important issue, and I think it’s a credit to the folks at Duke that they take the issue sufficiently seriously to be willing to take a step like this (EDIT: To be clear, I don’t necessarily agree that the specific step they’re taking is the right one. But that they’re willing to take this step is a sign of how seriously they take the issue, and it’s good that they take it seriously). It’s not an unprecedented step. UConn EEB did a version of this for a couple of searches a couple of years ago, though I hear through the grapevine that they’ve now gone back to doing conventional searches (anyone know more about that?) (UPDATE: Mark Urban from UConn has commented on UConn’s experience; thanks very much to Mark for sharing this.)
Some thoughts and questions below the fold.
- In contrast to UConn, Duke is making applicants provide the redacted materials. UConn redacted the materials themselves.
- As noted in Meg’s post on the UConn experience, you have to be careful when redacting materials, because a single mistake can give away information. Which means that, ironically, some members of underrepresented groups might have to redact some useful information, right? For instance, if you’d held a fellowship reserved for members of an underrepresented group, such as a SEEDS fellowship, presumably you’d have to redact the name of the fellowship, right? Or else omit it from your cv entirely? And if you attended a women’s college as an undergrad, presumably you’d have to redact the name of the college?
- Just curious: what will Duke do with application materials that accidentally reveal an applicant’s identity, gender, ethnicity, etc.?
- Even if the redactions are perfect, some of them may be seen through by some search committee members. This creates the potential for blinding to be broken non-randomly with respect to applicant attributes. For instance, more prominent applicants might be both more likely to be recognized, and more likely to be white or male. Which potentially can have perverse consequences–creating biases rather than (or as well as) weakening them. We’ve discussed this before in the context of double-blind peer review. How many and which applicants get recognized by which search committee members will depend a lot on the idiosyncrasies of the applications and who happens to be on the search committee. For instance, back when I served on an environmental microbiology search committee, I doubt I would’ve seen through Duke-style blinding on any application, since I’m not a microbiologist. But I’m sure some of the microbiologists on the search committee would’ve seen through blinding on some of the applications. In general, I think it’s hard to say how much to worry about the possibility that blinding will be seen through non-randomly and so create or exacerbate biases rather than reduce them.
- Will search committee members will be forbidden from looking up the applicants’ papers during the initial stage? That of course would be a trivially easy way to break the blinding. If looking at papers is forbidden, then that means the initial stage search will be conducted without the information that would be provided by looking at papers and associated information like how often those papers have been cited, etc. Which means that the remaining information, such as publication venue, takes on correspondingly greater importance.
- Related to the previous remark, redacting the identities of the applicants’ supervisors, references, and collaborators removes useful information about the applicants, even in the absence of reference letters. Doing a search blind necessarily means doing it based on less information, and so putting more weight on the remaining information.
- Whether the redactions will actually have any effect on the search outcome seems likely to depend a lot on what constitutes the “initial stage” of the search. If the initial stage just involves cutting the applicant pool down to anyone who has a ghost of a chance of being hired, I doubt blinding will matter. In my admittedly-anecdotal experience with conventional searches, nobody potentially competitive gets eliminated at an early stage, before reference letters are requested or phone/skype interviews scheduled. But at some point, the search committee quite rightly will want the information provided by reference letters, publications, supervisor and collaborator identities, citations, interviews, etc. After all, if you didn’t need that information you’d just make the hiring decision based on the redacted applications. In this way, faculty searches seem to me to be importantly-different from the example of professional orchestra auditions. You can listen to orchestra auditions blind and still get all the information needed to make an informed hiring decision, and so you absolutely should conduct the audition blind. You can’t do that for faculty positions. So given that at some point the application process is going to be unblinded, what if anything is gained by blinding an early stage? Can’t you just pass through to the unblinded stage everyone who has even a remote chance of being hired? Because in my experience you can identify those applicants objectively from unblinded application materials.
- Bottom line: it’s a hard nut to crack. I don’t have any answers. The final stages of the faculty job application process seem to me like the stages at which subtle implicit biases would most affect the outcome, because those are the stages at which the objective differences among the remaining applicants are smallest. But the final stages are also the stages at which you want as much information as possible–and you simply can’t get that information without knowing the applicants’ identities. So I dunno. I think it’s ultimately an empirical question whether Duke’s approach leads to better, fairer search outcomes than something like using a score sheet to rank all the applicants, or (my own preferred solution at the moment) giving the search committee members training in recognizing implicit biases and implementing appropriate procedures to minimize the influence of those biases.
Looking forward to your comments, as always.