Male editors ‘more likely to accept papers from other men’

Study finds further evidence to suggest peer review process riddled with gender and racial bias

September 28, 2018
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Journal editors and peer reviewers are significantly more likely to accept work from authors whose backgrounds match their own, according to a study that sheds new light on gender and minority biases within academic publishing.

Given the over-representation of men and academics from North America and Europe within these “gatekeeper” roles, the finding – based on analysis of peer review outcomes of 23,873 initial submissions and 7,192 full submissions to the biosciences journal eLife between 2012 and 2017 – goes some way towards explaining the under-representation of women and researchers from the rest of the world in scientific periodicals.

For the new study, published as a working paper on the preprint repository bioRxiv, researchers from universities in the US, Netherlands, UK and Canada sought to determine the gender balance and nationality of editors and peer reviewers and last-named authors.

Gatekeepers were found to be more favourable towards manuscripts from authors of the same gender and nationality as them.

The acceptance rate for manuscripts with male last authors was significantly higher than that for female last authors – an inequality that was greatest when the team of reviewers was all-male, they found.

Manuscripts submitted to eLife were 1.8 per cent more likely to be published if they had male corresponding authors, and papers that had female lead authors were published at 88.3 per cent of the rate of those with male lead authors.

Similarly, manuscripts submitted by lead authors from China were accepted at only 22 per cent of the rate of manuscripts submitted by a lead author from the US.

Mixed-gender gatekeeper teams led to more equitable peer review outcomes, the authors note. All-female reviewer teams also displayed a higher acceptance rate for female authors, although cases of all-female teams were rare, meaning that the sample was too small to draw meaningful conclusions.

“Increasing eLife’s representation of women and scientists from a more diverse set of nations among editors may lead to a more diverse reviewer pool and a more equitable peer review process,” the researchers conclude.

Common oversights that can lead to lack of diversity in publishing, they say, include a tendency for editors to invite peer reviewers from their own professional networks – causing the editors, who are most often men from scientifically advanced countries, to inadvertently exclude certain groups.

While the study’s authors highlight that double-blind peer review processes are “generally viewed positively by the scientific community” as a way of reducing personal biases, the approach is not widely used in biosciences, and previous experiments found authors “rarely opted in when offered”.

Earlier this year, eLife announced a new trial in which it committed to publishing all articles it accepted for peer review, on the condition that authors agreed to have all reviewer reports and decisions published transparently alongside the paper. The experiment was seen as a way of putting more power in the hands of authors by removing the gatekeeping role played by peer reviewers.

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Reader's comments (1)

I have been an international academic journal editor for 33 years and have seen more than 10,000 papers into print. When I deal with manuscripts I struggle to be objective, balanced and fair. However, one of my principles is that my loyalty is to the journal, not the authors, whoever they are. My aim is to build a better journal, in which authors will recognise the quality and want to publish their work. This means being strict about the quality of what I accept for publication. If there are patterns in quality, the contents of the journal will reflect them. That may seem very simple, but there are two other issues. The first is that there is a thread of serious bias among referees. I first noticed it in 1985 when I started my editorial role. Willingness to review papers is related to gender, national origin and whether or not European or North American men are among the authors. In the1980s and 1990s I termed it ‘academic racism’: that may be an overstatement but it is certainly part of the ‘clannisness’ of academic life. It is not by any means universal, but it is a highly consistent phenomenon. I find papers from authors in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and India take much higher than average effort to get reviewed. This may be because of a record of poor science and scholarship in these countries, but it is particularly hard on good and aspiring authors from such places, who must struggle harder to achieve recognition. Fairness means that even second-rate papers need to be reviewed and their shortcomings (gently) pointed out to the authors so that they can improve their work, which will benefit us all. Not many academic referees operate on that principle. The second issue is competitivity. Universities put pressure on their employees to compete, especially in research outcomes. The result is a failure to help struggling academics elsewhere. For instance, westerners, by and large, are reluctant to give positive, constructive help to Africa authors. Some good work is coming out of African universities and it is a struggle to give it the recognition that it deserves. It is also a struggle to ensure that African authors feel included in the international research endeavour. It should not be. Ultimately, present trends in academic publishing are unsustainable. The best research should involve collaboration in many different ways, and exclusionary policies and actions should be reduced. Fostering a community of scholarship means taking positive action to include those who would join it, and fairly recognising good work, whoever may be its author. I fear that requires a different model of university.