On a recent post, DNAMan asks:

If you were reviewing an NIH proposal from a PI who was a known (or widely rumored) sexual harasser, would you take that into account? How?

My immediate answer was:

I don’t know about “widely rumored”. But if I was convinced someone was a sexual harasser this would render me unable to fairly judge the application. So I would recuse myself and tell the SRO why I was doing so. As one is expected to do for any conflicts that one recognizes about the proposal.

I’m promoting this to a new post because this also came up in the Twitter discussion of Lander’s toast of Jim Watson. Apparently this is not obvious to everyone.

One is supposed to refuse to review grant proposals, and manuscripts submitted for publication, if one feels that one has a conflict of interest that renders the review biased. This is very clear. Formal guidelines tend to concentrate on personal financial benefits (i.e. standing to gain from a company in which one has ownership or other financial interest), institutional benefits (i.e., you cannot review NIH grants submitted from your University since the University is, after all, the applicant and you are an agent of that University) and mentoring / collaborating interests (typically expressed as co-publication or mentoring formally in past three years). Nevertheless there is a clear expectation, spelled out in some cases, that you should refuse to take a review assignment if you feel that you cannot be unbiased.

This is beyond any formal guidelines. A general ethical principle.

There is a LOT of grey area.

As I frequently relate, in my early years when a famous Editor asked me to review a manuscript from one of my tighter science homies and I pointed out this relationship I was told “If I had to use that standard as the Editor I would never get anything reviewed. Just do it. I know you are friends.“.

I may also have mentioned that when first on study section I queried an SRO about doing reviews for PIs who were scientifically sort of close to my work. I was told a similar thing about how reviews would never get done if vaguely working in the same areas and maybe one day competing on some topic were the standard for COI recusal.

So we are, for the most part, left up to our own devices and ethics about when we identify a bias in ourselves and refuse to do peer review because of this conflict.

I have occasionally refused to review an NIH grant because the PI was simply too good of a friend. I can’t recall being asked to review a grant proposal from anyone I dislike personally or professionally enough to trigger my personal threshold.

I am convinced, however, that I would recuse myself from the review of proposals or manuscripts from any person that I know to be a sexual harasser, a retaliator and/or a bigot against women, underrepresented groups generally, LGBTQ, and the like.

There is a flavor of apologist for Jim Watson (et rascalia) that wants to pursue a “slippery slope” argument. Just Asking the Questions. You know the type. One or two of these popped up on twitter over the weekend but I’m too lazy to go back and find the thread.

The JAQ-off response is along the lines of “What about people who have politics you don’t like? Would you recuse yourself from a Trump voter?”.

The answer is no.

Now sure, the topic of implicit or unconscious bias came up and it is problematic for sure. We cannot recuse ourselves when we do not recognize our bias. But I would argue that this does not in any way suggest that we shouldn’t recuse ourselves when we DO recognize our biases. There is a severity factor here. I may have implicit bias against someone in my field that I know to be a Republican. Or I may not. And when there is a clear and explicit bias, we should recuse.

I do not believe that people who have proven themselves to be sexual harassers or bigots on the scale of Jim Watson deserve NIH grant funding. I do not believe their science is going to be so much superior to all of the other applicants that it needs to be funded. And so if the NIH disagrees with me, by letting them participate in peer review, clearly I cannot do an unbiased job of what NIH is asking me to do.

The manuscript review issue is a bit different. It is not zero-sum and I never review that way, even for the supposedly most-selective journals that ask me to review. There is no particular reason to spread scoring, so to speak, as it would be done for grant application review. But I think it boils down to essentially the same thing. The Editor has decided that the paper should go out for review and it is likely that I will be more critical than otherwise.

So….can anyone see any huge problems here? Peer review of grants and manuscripts is opt-in. Nobody is really obliged to participate at all. And we are expected to manage the most obvious of biases by recusal.