A Critical Race Approach to Academic Journal Editor and Reviewer Bias in Manuscript Acceptance

Joslyn Armstrong, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Counseling, Therapy, & School Psychology, Lewis & Clark College; and Jasmine Armstrong, Ph.D., Project Coordinator, Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking nonprofit organization
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2021

Joslyn Armstrong, Ph.D. (left); and Jasmine Armstrong, Ph.D.

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In Brief:

  • Apply critical race theory to reviewers’ assessment of “rigor” on manuscripts pertaining to racial and ethnic minority participants.
  • Editors and reviewers may provide an inequitable evaluation on research of racial and ethnic minorities.
  • Reviewers may perpetuate White supremacy and racism in their feedback within the manuscript review process. 

We are sociology and marriage and family scholars who have completed research studies for empirical, peer-reviewed journals and collected diverse samples of Black populations. Our research examines the authentic narratives of the Black lived experience. The first author examines Black father identity, father–child relationship quality, and mental health outcomes for Black men. The second author examines assimilation of Black college students in predominantly White institutions, which reflects her research interests in race and gender studies, intersectionality, and higher education. Both researchers have completed quantitative and qualitative research using predominantly Black samples. In this paper, we apply critical race theory (CRT) to reviewers’ assessment of the merits and “rigor” of research focusing on racial and ethnic minority participants, and ask that reviewers be aware of their implicit bias and subjectivity in evaluating manuscripts.


Critical Race Theory

CRT emerged from the examination of the legal system during the post–civil rights era in the 1970s (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Chaney & Robertson, 2014; Crenshaw et al., 1995). The components of CRT are (a) recognition of the role of race and racism and the importance of race as an aspect of an intersectionality perspective; (b) questioning of the concepts of colorblindness, race neutrality, and meritocracy; (c) support for integrating experiential knowledge from racial and ethnic minority groups into research; (d) seeking to eliminate racism for racial and ethnic minority groups; and (e) integration of historical and contemporary analysis of racism into scholarship (Crenshaw et al., 1995; Delgado & Stefancic, 2001). CRT proposes that racism is deeply ingrained in prominent institutional systems, including criminal justice, health care, and education (Hadden et al., 2016). From a CRT lens, given the invisibility of race and racism in our society, those who embody Whiteness are often unaware of the pervasiveness of race and racism. That is, because race is normalized in society, it is difficult for White people to acknowledge that racism is embedded within institutions and policy (Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Crenshaw et al., 1995). CRT explores how the construction of race factors into the creation of standards and policies that benefit the dominant group, White people (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Harris, 1993).


An Inequitable Manuscript Evaluation

To be published in an academic journal, a manuscript must be accepted by the editor(s) after having received reviewer feedback. This process may present judgments and bias in the inclusion and exclusion criteria by reviewers and editor(s). For scholars who study racial and ethnic groups, some inquire whether reviewers are evaluating their manuscripts for suitability and skillfulness or critiquing their work on the basis of study samples that comprise racial and ethnic minorities. What is a culturally relevant and equitable way to evaluate “fit” for a journal in the manuscript review process?

In our experience, when we have submitted manuscripts that focus on sociocultural issues in the Black community, there is a reviewer who questions the “fit” and “rigor” of the manuscript. We have seen reviewers provide this kind of feedback: (a) include White people in our sample, (b) provide reasoning about how the results from our Black sample size will be representative of the larger population (i.e., White people and other non-Black people), and (c) questioning the relevance of our research that focuses on Black people.

Generally, we have had conversations around questions like, What is rigor? Who determines whether a study has enough rigor? Why do questions or concerns about “fit” seem to be involved for studies that focus primarily on racial and ethnic communities? If we use CRT to examine these comments from a race-centered lens, then it is clear that certain manuscript evaluation standards are created to benefit the interests of the dominant group and further oppress marginalized groups. We propose that these “standards” are subjective and can minimize the significance of research on racial and ethnic communities, which leads to the exclusion of this research from journals. CRT challenges whether any standards that do exist were created to evaluate manuscripts equally or whether they exist in order to integrate Whiteness into research even when they are not the center of the phenomenon.

A popular comment we have encountered from editors and reviewers involves the need to have a White comparison group in our sample of Black people. We question whether editors and reviewers align with ideals of Whiteness and White supremacy when they suggest incorporating White people in our studies that revolve around Black experiences. Why does including a White person’s data automatically label the research as significant? Reviewers expect White perspectives to be included in racial and ethnic data if White people serve as the “general” population. This expectation allows Whiteness to assert itself in discourses that do not pertain to the experiences of White people (Lipstiz, 1995). CRT points to how these subtle comments are connected to the complex ways that racism and White supremacy are infused into the academic review process for journals.

Similarly, reviewers have challenged the generalizability of our research studies because our samples comprise primarily Black people. Manuscripts with only one minority-group sample, specifically Black samples, seem to be evaluated heavily on credibility and generalizability. We do not see the same scrutiny being given to predominantly White samples. We also question whether results from predominantly white samples can be applied to racial and ethnic populations. Reviewers suggest incorporating more White people into the sample to convey an “equal playing field.” This type of feedback further perpetuates racist ideologies that research focused on Black people is not legitimate and credible without the inclusion of White perspectives. Colorblindness may manifest as reviewers “not wanting to see color” question the importance of highlighting a racial or ethnic group. Also, reviewers may believe that the manuscript is “speaking about race too much” or strays from the journal's central theme. Color-blindness “as a form of equality” restricts how this feedback diminishes the results that are specific to Black people. (Teasley et al., 2018, p. 39; see also Bonilla-Silva, 2003). From a CRT lens, reviewers may have difficulty understanding how this type of feedback centers White perspectives and prioritizes their own experiences to validate the rigors of the study. Reviewers are likely unaware that in doing this they are continuing a system of structural inequality by preventing the acceptance of manuscripts under the guise of “generalizability.”


Implications for Family Science

CRT challenges journal editors and reviewers to examine how they are aligning with White supremacy, race neutrality, and colorblind ideologies in their review and evaluation of manuscripts. Also, CRT supports the inclusion of research that focuses on racial and ethnic minority lived experiences. Last, CRT encourages editors and editorial boards to eradicate structural inequality that scholars of color experience. CRT can be used as an accountability tool for editors and reviewers. We propose that reviewers examine themselves for implicit bias and colorblind perspectives when they review manuscripts. Before adding comments about including White participants, we suggest that reviewers consider the research study’s purpose and goals and reflect on why it is not necessary to add White participants to samples primarily composed of racial/ethnic participants. At the institutional level, editors and editorial boards can offer explicit guidance and information to reviewers about the pervasiveness of bias, racism, and Whiteness that is critically-informed and social justice oriented. We also recommend appointing scholars of color as editors and reviewers, and to the editorial board. Editorial boards can prioritize building a diverse committee of reviewers and editors who study racial and ethnic populations and experiences. Using a CRT framework, editors and reviewers will need to recognize the prevalence and pervasiveness of racism within the manuscript review process.



Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (2nd ed.). Rowmen & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

Crenshaw, K., Gotanda, N., Peller, G., & Thomas, K. (1995). Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New Press.

Chaney, C., & Robertson, R. V. (2014). “Can we all get along?” Blacks’ historical and contemporary (in)justice with law enforcement. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 38(2), 108-122. 

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2001). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. New York University Press.

Hadden, B. R., Tolliver, W., Snowden, F., & Brown-Manning, R. (2016). An authentic discourse: Recentering race and racism as factors that contribute to police violence against unarmed Black and African American men.  Journal of Human Behavior in Social Environment, 26(3-4), 336-349.

Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1707-1791.

Lipstiz, G. (1995). The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics (20th ed.). Temple University Press. 

Teasley, M. E., Schiele, J. H., Adams, C., & Okilwa, N. S. (2018). Trayvon Martin: Racial profiling, Black male stigma, and social work practice. Social Work, 63(1), 37-45.