New preprint on racial inequality in psych research

I recently learned of this preprint. The conclusions have been highlighted by several of my colleagues as examples of hidden racism among psychologists against people of colour.

Roberts, Bareket-Shavit, Dollins, Goldie, & Mortenson (2020, June 12). Racial Inequality in Psychological Research: Trends of the Past and Recommendations for the Future.

Three main findings are brought up in the abstract:

First, across the past five decades, psychological publications that highlight race have been rare, and although they have increased in developmental and social psychology, they have remained virtually nonexistent in cognitive psychology. Second, most publications have been edited by White editors, under which there have been significantly fewer publications that highlight race. Third, many of the publications that highlight race have been written by White authors who employed significantly fewer participants of color.

A number of solutions are proposed of which I want to highlight a few.

This one was aimed at journals:

3. Merit participant diversity in the review process. Just as manuscripts are evaluated by their theoretical novelty, methodological rigor, and clarity of writing, they should be evaluated by the diversity of their samples. If journals can distinguish publications with preregistered studies and publicly accessible data sets and materials, they can be reasonably expected to distinguish publications with samples that do not consist mostly of White people (e.g., badges for publications that do not concern Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic [WEIRD] samples). Alternatively, journals could mark publications that consist mostly of White people (e.g., WEIRD badges). Either could incentivize researchers to diversify their samples.

The recommendations below were aimed at authors:

1. Detail the racial demographics of samples. The majority of psychology publications fail to report the racial demographics of their samples (DeJesus et al., 2019) or report simplified dichotomies (e.g., White vs. non-White). Moving forward, authors could report the breakdown of the full racial demographics of their samples (e.g., 70% White, 20% Asian, 8% Black, 2% Multiracial), ideally in the abstract. Doing so makes transparent who is included in psychological science and allows for comparisons across studies, which may be especially important for meta-analyses. Of course, we did not examine variation within POCs in the present research (e.g., whether the inclusion of Asian participants has changed over time). This decision was born out of necessity; racial categories have changed over time, and publications inconsistently report the demographics of their samples. Moving forward, we hope to see journals and authors follow this recommendation, which would enable future researchers to conduct more nuanced investigations.

2. Justify the racial demographics of samples. This recommendation prevents researchers from relying only on easy-to-access populations (e.g., White college students), motivates them to consider the generality of their research questions and theoretical assumptions, and encourages them to include diverse humans in the scientific process. Just as researchers could justify their sample sizes, they could justify their sample demographics (see Rowley & Camacho, 2015).


4. Include positionality statements. This recommendation makes transparent how the identities of the authors relate to the research topic and to the identity of the participants and the extent to which those identities are represented in the permanent scientific record. Just as authors release statements of author contributions, they can release positionality statements that afford contributors the opportunity to clarify how they are positioned regarding the research and the researched. If, for instance, scholars are drawing conclusions about Asian Americans, yet the author list consists exclusively of White Americans, that could be made clear. Indeed, if authors detail their samples’ racial identities, they could just as well detail their own racial identities. This recommendation may encourage researchers to conduct their research collaboratively with diverse scientists and engage in multilab collaborations (see Bourke, 2014; Medin & Bang, 2014; Nzinga et al., 2018).

The authors continue:

None of these recommendations needs to be limited to the study of race. Although race was the focus in this research, intersectionality is also vital to a healthy and representative science (e.g., persons representing a wide range of gender, political, religious, and sexual identities). For example, it could be made clear in the positionality statement that the research question concerns gender yet the research team consists only of individuals who identify as male, or that the research participants are members of the LGBTQ community yet the research team consists only of individuals who identify as heterosexual and cisgender. If the researchers are making claims about any social identity, their relationship with that identity could be stated.

It is mentioned earlier in the paper that the empirical part of the study is focused on US authors and samples. But they don’t seem to repeat this highly relevant limitation when proposing their solutions which makes me think that they propose these changes to be implemented on a more general (i.e. international) level. This won’t work at all in many countries. In Europe it is pretty much considered racist to talk about race and we definitely don’t ask people about their race. Taking the risk of messing with Godwin’s Law, my understanding is that this is a direct consequence from the Second World War (please correct me if I’m wrong). For example, there were cases where Nazi troops simply could enter the library and check the census for race or religion to create a list of everyone they wanted to send to the camps. As a Swede I was horrified to learn that Indonesians are required to have their religion listed on their personal IDs. Similarly, from my Swedish perspective, I’m very disturbed by the identity badges and positionality statements proposed by the authors. They seem way too similar to the identity badges we employed in Europe 80 years ago.

I understand that the study and the proposed solutions come from the best of intentions, but the paper is extremely US focused and that should have been made clearer and discussed throughout the paper. The proposed solutions would be beyond terrible if implemented in a European context.

from 3:

I suppose I would take issue with this manuscripts’ methodological rigor in choosing to use the term ‘White people’ (assuming they have not rigorously defined it elsewhere).

Are there solutions in a European context? Is what they are highlighting a problem in psychology research in Europe? Genuinely curious, I don’t know much about this topic.