Power and Privilege in Peer Review

David Phipps was recently asked to speak to a research funder and some community reviewers about community engagement and inclusion in peer review of global health research grants. Issues of power and privilege come to play when combining community/public/patient reviewers with academic reviewers. It’s a nice idea but it isn’t effective in common practice. He suggests three ways to give power to the community voice.


I work at a university supporting research and impact but I am not an academic researcher. Have both an insider view (I work in the university research enterprise) and an outsider view (I am not an academic). I have worked at universities and at funders of research. Seen a lot of practices, few of them “best practices” for authentically engaging the lay/community/public/patient (for ease, I will refer to them as community) voice in peer review


Having community members including people with lived experience enhances the relevance of research to end users, and if research is more relevant to their needs then there is a greater chance the research will be taken up and implemented into policies, products or services that will benefit them. This is the thesis of a 2013 paper from Bowen & Graham (https://researchimpact.ca/from-knowledge-translation-to-engaged-scholarship-promoting-research-relevance-and-utilization/) who conclude that the failure to bridge the gap from research to practice isn’t a failure of knowledge transfer, it is a failure of knowledge production. If researchers worked on topics meaningful to end users then there is a greater chance the research will be taken up and used to benefit them (side bar, this in no way takes away from the foundational purpose of and need for fundamental, curiosity driven research).


There are issues related to effective community engagement in peer review. Please don’t just throw a community member into an academi peer review situation. The community member will run into issues of power and privilege that will always put them at a disadvantage. What follows is a generalization and I acknowledge there are academics who work hard their whole career to balance the power and privilege of the academy but…



⁃ Many academic researchers are used to being the “experts” and the peers on peer review

⁃ The collegially self governed academic enterprise makes it the job of academics to make decisions about academic research

⁃ We need to reimagine the definition of a “peer” in peer review. Community members are not just peers in community engagement, they are the experts

⁃ With conventions such as tenure and academic freedom, universities are working a 600 year old business model that was designed to explicitly resist external (ie community) influences. This is not a bash on tenure and academic freedom but a reflection on the power these provide to academic researchers



⁃ Academic researchers have salaries to pay them to do peer review

⁃ Academics have expectations in their job descriptions to do peer review

⁃ Academics are rewarded through career growth and recognition by participating on peer review committees

⁃ None of these are true for community reviewers

⁃ In a global health context many scientific reviewers are from industrialized nations while community reviewers sometimes are not. Academic reviewers will have an advanced degree PhD and/or MD, not true for all community reviewers. I have been at this global health review table for three years. I observe that many scientific reviewers are white while many community reviewers are not.

⁃ Colonization and systemic racism are present in peer review as it is in society. This creates tensions between academic and community reviewers


Most responses to these tensions are to build capacity of community reviewers to participate in peer review. This is necessary but not sufficient. Even if we build capacity it won’t help if academic reviewers don’t listen and respect the authority and expertise of community reviewers.


Decolonizing is the work of those who have the power and privilege not the work of those who don’t. We need to decolonize peer review by balancing the differentials in power and privilege between academic and community reviewers.


How do we balance power and privilege? I have seen three methods of grant review that places decision making power in the hands of both academic and community reviewers.

  1. Community review happens first. In this model community is a gate keeper. Only those applications with an excellent community engagement/impact plan move forward to scientific review.
  2. Community review happens at same time as academic review but it is separate: Community reviewers review separately from academic reviewers. Only those applications that meet both standards of excellence are considered eligible for funding.
  3. Community review happens last: Only those passing standards of scientific/academic excellence move to community review. Community/impact review makes the final recommendations for funding.


All three separate the scientific review from the community review. This gives power to community reviewers by giving them decision making powers not just influence via a voice at a table dominated by other voices imbued with power and privilege. The work in #3 is less because some applications will be weeded out. #2 has potential for conflict and may need conflict resolution. #1 might happen at an LOI stage where only those with strong community engagement and impact plans are invited to a full application.


We can balance power and privilege between academic and community reviewers but we don’t do this within existing processes. We need to change those processes to give power to those who are excluded from traditional power structures. I know it can happen because I have seen it first hand.