Anonymising applications benefits early-career researchers

Thursday, 18 January, 2024

Anonymising applications benefits early-career researchers

A multi-year study led by the office of Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, has investigated the impact of anonymisation (removing identifying names and other information) on applications for access to research facilities in Australia. The results reveal a significant discovery: anonymising applications for scientific equipment significantly benefited early-career researchers, offering them an increased chance of success, irrespective of gender.

“This study goes beyond the usual assumptions about anonymisation in competitive grants and highlights the real struggles of early-career researchers in academia,” Harvey-Smith said.

The trial was conducted across four cross-disciplinary research organisations managing national scientific facilities, including the Anglo-Australian Telescope; the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering (ACNS); the Australia Telescope National Facility, which is owned and operated by CSIRO; and the National Computational Merit Allocation Scheme. Each organisation implemented anonymisation differently but the results across organisations were fairly consistent.

Before anonymisation, no gender gaps in application outcomes were observed. The introduction of anonymisation maintained the existing gender equity landscape; however, anonymisation did enhance success rates for early-career researchers, fostering diversity in the research pool. This suggests a positive impact on the broader retention and advancement of researchers facing barriers in STEM research.

Anonymisation statistically significantly boosted the success rates for applications led by early-career researchers at ACNS, irrespective of the applicant’s gender.

“Our focus was on finding out how organisations could create an equitable research environment,” said Dr Isabelle Kingsley, lead researcher on the study. “Anonymisation proved to be a powerful tool.”

“Anonymising applications removes access to information that can lead to psychological biases, offering a fairer assessment for all applicants,” said Associate Professor Lisa Williams, Chief Investigator on the grants that funded this work.

Kingsley added, “Securing access to research facilities is as pivotal as winning grants. Anonymisation levels the playing field, making it less about prestige and more about merit.”

The study’s impact extends beyond application outcomes, as the removal of personal information from applications could be a catalyst for removing systemic barriers to career advancement. Harvey-Smith concluded, “Access to research facilities is just one piece of the puzzle in STEM inequity. Anonymisation addresses a crucial aspect, fostering a more inclusive and diverse research landscape.”

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