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News Release 09-055

"How Professors Think"

New book explores decision making inside the guarded world of peer review

How Professors Think looks at how academic research projects get million-dollar awards.

"How Professors Think" looks at how academic research projects get million-dollar awards.

March 31, 2009

View a video interview with Harvard University sociologist Michèle Lamont.

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

When making decisions about which of their peers' projects deserve millions of dollars in academic research funding, reviewers often consider both the diversity and the excellence of the proposals before them. This discovery is one of many in a new book, "How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment," by Harvard University sociologist Michèle Lamont.

Lamont's finding is somewhat unexpected, because diversity and excellence are often at loggerheads in academic circles. Some researchers argue that excellence must be sacrificed for diversity in certain cases, while other researchers argue the opposite.

"Although racial and gender diversity are the types of diversity about which there is most debate in higher education, the kind of diversity that my panelists are most concerned with is institutional diversity and interdisciplinary diversity," said Lamont in an interview with the National Science Foundation, which supported her work. According to Lamont, decision makers generally want money to be spread across many universities and research disciplines.

Her book takes readers inside the rarely-seen culture of academic peer review that asks highly-reputable experts to examine and assess the quality of researchers' work before awarding large sums of money to academic institutions throughout the United States.

"I've always studied how people define worth," said Lamont describing her book. "So it was in some ways a continuation of my earlier work, but applied to a new realm of activity: academia."

Organizers typically close peer review panels to outsiders, but as an experienced evaluator, Lamont gained access to several peer review panels. She was able to interview panelists before and after project review meetings, to observe some panels, and to inspect the notes of screeners in an effort to understand how funding decisions are made.

Lamont suggests that one of the main contributions of her book is showing panelists how the peer review process is fair. She says there are many complexities involved in making sure participants perceive the system as equitable to all involved.

"Although participants recognize the failures of the system, there are a lot of pulls and pushes that make it work" she said. "And the book provides a detailed analysis of that."

The book looks at peer review in six disciplines: anthropology, economics, English literature, history, philosophy and political science. Among the topics it covers are middle of the pack and horse-trading, the power of personal and professional interests, and diversity of diversity considerations.

"How Professors Think" is available from Harvard University Press.


Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF, (703) 292-8485, email:

Program Contacts
Patricia E. White, NSF, (703) 292-8762, email:

Principal Investigators
Michèle Lamont, Harvard University, (617) 495-8697, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2021 budget of $8.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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