Say What You Mean: The Danger of Metaphors in the Peer Review Process

Once a month, the J&J Professional Development Committee chooses an industry article to discuss with the greater J&J team. The topic can range from industry-spanning threads such as Open Access to specific matters such as the careful use of inclusive language in review. In this space, J&J employees—from new hires to executive leaders—can pick each other’s brains and discuss the evolving industry from many points of view. Here are some of the highlights from our discussion of “Anonymous Review” says it all.

Keeping up with inclusive language use in an ever-changing landscape can be difficult, but discussing these issues with an open mind as they arise is a top priority at J&J. One recurring theme is that many of the common metaphors and idioms we use in our everyday language have inherent biases that we are not always aware of. In a recent conversation facilitated by our Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Council and our Professional Development Committee, employees sat down to discuss how to use more inclusive language in the peer review process, specifically when referring to “single-blind” and “double-blind” studies.

What do we really mean when we use the term “blind” in the peer review process?

An important factor to consider is how the current definition of blind—as it relates to the peer review process—developed. While the history of how a word developed matters, its current context is typically more relevant, and no matter how “blind” became the common phrase to describe the practice of peer review, it is not possible to get around the fact that its current usage in peer review is metaphorical.

When we reference a “single-blind” or “double-blind” study or reviewer, we are actually talking about information that is unknowable to an individual. In referring to something that is unknowable and interchanging it with the term “blind,” we effectively equate the trait of blindness with not knowing. The horrible, but often unintentional, implication here is that to be blind is to not know.

By using the terms “anonymous” or “identity-hidden” instead, we not only do we help create a more inclusive environment but we are also actually speaking with more clarity.

"Words Have Power" spelt with tiles

How can we be equipped to address non-inclusive usage of language in the scholarly publishing world?

Making internal terminology switches such as this can be simpler than advocating for these changes with clients. The nuances of linguistic changes can be especially tricky for clients whose first language is not English. So communicating alternative terms or phrasing to be more inclusive should be done thoughtfully. At J&J, we try to be as thoughtful as possible when providing feedback to clients regarding issues such as this. One of our client managers has noted that “This [suggesting that clients use the term anonymizing] is something that would be good to discuss with team leads and client managers and depends on the project. We should not do anything against clients’ protocols or style guides, but we can offer suggestions to clients.”

When copyediting, our editors are encouraged to watch for problematic language and leave queries for the authors to consider changing their terms to something that is not discriminatory. This approach effectively places the onus on the authors, holding them accountable for the language they use.

Copyeditors are also encouraged to reference style guides that have already implemented the change as a diplomatic reason for nudging authors to change their language. One trusty source that a senior copyeditor at J&J proffers to authors is APA’s Bias-Free Language Guide. For more information about how our copyeditors promote using the most up-to-date language, see Catie Sharpe’s article “Inclusive Language: What Copy Editors Need to Know”.

Making these changes is an important step in addressing unconscious biases in the scholarly publishing industry—as well as individually. Being aware of the everyday metaphors we use to describe industry practices helps us consider whether the language we are using is free of bias or not. But generally, in saying what we mean and trying to be as clear as possible, we avoid making sweeping generalizations or using metaphors that are based on inherently biased language.


Article contribution by J&J Managing Editor Kellyanna Bussell. This article is based on an internal discussion by our Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council and our Professional Development Committee and included contributions from Tasha Wilhelmsen, Rachel Mosher, Tori Capehart, Susan Rodriguez, Riley Ratcliff, Sarah Hammond, Carson Risser, and Ivy Sudweeks.