Fairness In Science: What For?

“Pattern8” by F. Azuaje

Journals and funding agencies ask their reviewers to be fair in their decisions. Committees are expected to act fairly in their evaluations concerning recruitment and promotions. Universities and other research organizations seek to embed fairness into their core values and policies.

And yet, what is it all for?

As a general rule, we understand fairness as the sense that the procedures behind any decision or interpretation potentially affecting us are: unbiased, proportionate and transparently applied.

This sounds like the central tenets of scientific research. Doesn’t it? Researchers usually know that they thrive and science advances only in the presence of these three attributes. But there is something stronger beneath that: science firmly rests on honesty, which in turns feeds on trust, and you cannot have trust where fairness is missing or ignored.

The scientific enterprise is mainly driven by the ambition of its members to achieve progress and to eventually benefit society: ranging from the most fundamental to the most applied aspects of their work. An almost blazing desire to search and to discover, the aspiration of advancing collectively or even of “moving up” as individuals. In science, like in free societies, such ambitions are typically constrained, or to a large extent moderated, by a strong set of norms and moral values. Norms and values that also rely on notions of fairness.


  “Give no decision till both sides thou’st heard”.


Fairness in the knowledge economy

In an age of never-ending growth, performance-oriented organizations and technological “disruption”, fairness also has a more practical value.

Research shows that employees are more engaged when they feel that decisions are made and executed in a fair manner. There even seems to be a correlation between employees’ perceptions of a lack of fairness and straightforward negative behaviour, such as absenteeism and procedural noncompliance. But it is not just about boosting employee motivation and job satisfaction. It is more than that. It is also about creating the conditions for sustaining trustworthy, long-term collaborations. This is necessary if we wish to create environments where both ethical and productive behaviour can truly flourish.

So, fairness should go well beyond legalistic guidelines or self-congratulatory advertising of management excellence. It is both a fundamental value in science and a functional instrument for generating socio-economic benefits. Fairness helps us connect to our co-workers, employers and society at large. Conversely, unfairness can nurture an atmosphere of internally-destructive fear. Ah, fear: that measurable impediment to innovation .

And fear can also badly tear us apart: In science, as in democracies.


Holtz, B., & Harold, C. (2010). Interpersonal Justice and Deviance: The Moderating Effects of Interpersonal Justice Values and Justice Orientation Journal of Management, 39 (2), 339-365 DOI: 10.1177/0149206310390049

Williams D.K. and Scott M.M. Conquering The Enemies of Innovation: Silence and Fear. Harvard Business Review 2012

Tricoles, R. (2012) Fairness in Workplace Key to Employee, Organizational Health

Originally published in: United Academics Magazine

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