Major study rejects idea of gender bias in academic publishing

Manuscripts by female authors enjoy more favourable treatment in many disciplines, according to analysis of 350,000 journal submissions

January 6, 2021
Female researchers
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Female academics do not face gender bias in peer review or from editorial decisions at scholarly journals, a major study has concluded.

With men continuing to publish more frequently and in more prestigious journals, some studies have suggested that the publication gap may be caused in part by systemic bias within the largely male body of editors and peer reviewers. In 2017, an eLife paper claimed that male reviewers and editors tended to favour male authors when selecting manuscripts for publication.

Lower rates of publication might help to explain why women are more likely to quit academia, less likely to win grants and are paid less on average than men, scholars have argued.

But a new study, published in Science Advances on 6 January, asserts that “peer review and editorial processes do not penalise manuscripts by women” and that, in some fields, “manuscripts written by women as solo authors or co-authored by women were treated even more favourably by referees and editors”.

The paper analyses almost 350,000 submissions to 145 journals across a wide range of disciplines, which were reviewed by 740,000 referees and led to 760,000 reviews.

“We found that manuscripts by all women or cross-gender teams of authors had even a higher probability of success in many cases,” states the paper, which adds that “this is especially so in journals in biomedicine, health, and physical sciences”.

The authors suggest that the higher rates of submission by male academics are likely to explain the ongoing gap in publication rates, with men accounting for 75 per cent of submissions the authors analysed, as well as 79 per cent of referees.

Flaminio Squazzoni, professor of sociology at the University of Milan and the study’s lead author, told Times Higher Education that “the problem is that…it seems women submit fewer manuscripts than men”, rather than inherent bias within the publishing system.

“Our possible explanation of such a gap of submissions is twofold [in that] women could be inclined to invest more in their manuscripts – and so submit less – as a means to anticipate possible editorial bias because they have been exposed to unfavourable academic environments in terms of selection, promotion and career, or women have simply less time to invest in writing manuscripts due to higher family obligations and a difficult life-work balance,” said Professor Squazzoni.

He said he hoped that debunking the notion of systemic bias would encourage more women to submit manuscripts for review.

“The fact that we found that probably such a bias at journals does not actually exist could hopefully contribute to de-structure such perceptions, but it takes time and more empirical evidence and research before these ingrained perceptions and expectations could change,” he said, adding that journals should “continue to take active policies regarding the involvement and participation of women in editorial boards and peer review”.

“This is a signal that could help de-structure gendered perceptions of potential authors and encourage more submissions by women,” Professor Squazzoni concluded.

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