Academic publishing must do better on gender

Current remedies are not enough. Publishers, editors and referees must do more to eliminate lurking biases, say Melinda Duer and Athene Donald

April 18, 2019
Illustration of scientist and test tubes
Source: Michelle Thompson

It was no surprise to see from UK universities’ latest annual statistics that the gender pay gap remains stubbornly high. There simply are not as many women as men at the top of the pay scales – and there are many more in the bottom grades.

If, as we would all like to believe, promotion is determined purely on merit, why should this be so? This problem is about so much more than women’s choices about families. The system needs fixing, not the women. But which bits, and how?

We suggest that publishers and journal editors have a key role to play that is often ignored or overlooked. Over hundreds of years, the publication of papers has been the main route for communicating science between researchers. But more recently, the number of papers published and the impact factor of the journal in which they appear have become accepted, if crude, proxies for assessing a researcher’s worth – for promotion, job applications and funding new research projects. The result is that universities are, in effect, outsourcing decisions about hiring and promotions to external organisations whose chief motivation is not to get this morally “right” but – in the case of commercial publishers, at least – to make money.

The evidence suggests that the current publishing model, set up by men for men, is beset with unconscious bias. The knock-on effect is not simply that much fantastic research never sees the light of day. It is also that many talented people from minority backgrounds do not see their careers progress in the way their excellence would warrant. This is not good for science, let alone the individuals. Science has always advanced by building on others’ achievements: under-representation of any part of the community impacts all of us by limiting progress and constraining research directions for no good scientific reasons.

Publishers and editors need to take more responsibility. This is not simply about inviting more women to write review articles, monitoring the percentage of women in the reviewer pool or collecting statistics on how many papers with female last or first authors are published – important though these measures are. If the best researchers’ work is to see the light of the day, and if, as a consequence, the best researchers are to be properly rewarded, we need to do far more as a community.

To take one telling statistic, Nicole Neuman, editor of Trends in Biochemical Sciences, reports that just 13 per cent of pre-submission enquiries to her journal come from women. Why? Is it because women are fragile snowflakes who cannot face rejection? Or is it that their experience tells them that they will waste a lot of time trying to publish in journals with high impact factors? Who is checking what happens when a paper with a female senior author hits the editor’s desk?

Bias is well known to be subtle. It is not just men who are biased against women; so too are women, as a 2012 study of job applications published in PNAS showed. So increasing the number of women in the reviewer pool, while giving more women useful experience, is unlikely to affect the number of female-authored papers accepted. Nor, correspondingly, is having more women on the editorial team of the journals.

Who is reviewing the reviewers and checking that they are not biased, consciously or unconsciously? After all, it was the authors who brought to public attention the case, in 2015, of the referee who told a pair of female scientists to get a male co-author. The editor had not seen fit to tear up the referee’s totally unacceptable report.

We have been able to find little evidence in the literature about how long papers with female authors take to be published in comparison with those with male authors, or on whether they are likely to have to go through more resubmissions before final acceptance, let alone on whether implicit or explicit sexism is to be found in the actual referees’ reports. But an analysis of papers in economics published last October concludes that “referees of both genders appear to set a higher bar for female-authored papers”; it would be interesting for comparable analyses to be done in different disciplines.

Our challenge to publishers, editors and referees alike is to do more to check at every stage that there is no lurking bias, implicit or explicit – and to think about the knock-on effects for gender equality of everything they do.

And universities should think about the unreflective ways that data around publishing may be used in their promotions and appointments processes. If, as anecdote would suggest, women get harsher referees’ comments, more revisions demanded and more outright rejections from editors even before review, then the consequences are that a significant sector in higher education is expending time and energy for no useful outcome.

We need much more sophisticated and wide-ranging consideration of the whole publication system. Otherwise, endemic bias will continue to skew the academic population.

Melinda Duer is professor of biological and biomedical chemistry and deputy warden of Robinson College, Cambridge. Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics and master of Churchill College, Cambridge.

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Reader's comments (5)

“We have been able to find little evidence in the literature about how long papers with female authors take to be published in comparison with those with male authors, or on whether they are likely to have to go through more resubmissions before final acceptance, let alone on whether implicit or explicit sexism is to be found in the actual referees’ reports. “ Yet yet yet... “The evidence suggests that the current publishing model, set up by men for men, is beset with unconscious bias. ” This whole argument is based on flimsy evidence (to put it kindly) and a presumption of guilt on the part of men for the failure of women to achieve equality of outcome in science and more generally in academia. I don’t recall a single example of this “bias” in any of the maths/engineering fields I’ve worked in. On the contrary, it’s a great time to be a woman in science/engineering and has been for a long time. They are often favoured in hiring and promotion for reasons of achieving a gender balance. Of course it will take time to redress an historical imbalance. This can’t be done by forcing equality of outcome, regardless of merit, which is what appears to be happening. Equality of opportunity is the important thing. Given the inertia of the system, some degree of positive action was merited, but I believe it’s gone far enough and perhaps even too far at the present time.
There is a large body of evidence of bias in publishing. Here is some (and references therein): ****** "Implicit bias can affect women’s ability to publish research findings and gain recognition for that work. Men cite their own papers 56 percent more than women do. Known as the “Matilda Effect,” there is a gender gap in recognition, award winning and citations. Women’s research is less likely to be cited by others and their ideas are more likely to be attributed to men. Women’s solo-authored research takes twice as long to move through the review process. Women are underrepresented in journal editorships, as senior scholars and lead authors, and as peer reviewers. This marginalization in research gatekeeping positions works against the promotion of women’s research." *************** Here is a typical recent study, in a field with many women researchers: What is interesting here is that there is a journal which asks authors to explain their gender gap (!!) “Research into the gendered citation patterns of academics has confirmed what many have long suspected -- that male authors tend to cite other men over women in their article bibliographies.” *********** A careful study of the bibliometric data ************** And some slightly older studies, further detailing the problem: "We find that in the most productive countries, all articles with women in dominant author positions receive fewer citations than those with men in the same positions" "a study of nearly one million engineering papers has found that despite publishing in more prestigious journals, female engineers are getting far less attention than their male colleagues. " ************* The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented? "Despite recent progress, the gender gap appears likely to persist for generations, particularly in surgery, computer science, physics, and maths. The gap is especially large in authorship positions associated with seniority, and prestigious journals have fewer women authors. Additionally, we estimate that men are invited by journals to submit papers at approximately double the rate of women. Wealthy countries, notably Japan, Germany, and Switzerland, had fewer women authors than poorer ones. We conclude that the STEMM gender gap will not close without further reforms in education, mentoring, and academic publishing."
Profs Duer and Donald should be applauded for highlighting this issue, and one hopes they will campaign about it vigorously; they are of course right that the role of publication in academia is so fundamental that little progress can be made toward gender equality in academic life until and unless we ensure fairness in publication decisions. The "analysis of papers in economics", for which they provide a link in the article, is very instructive. It appears to demonstrate robustly that the problem is reviewer bias: to get reviews positive enough for the paper to be published, female-authored papers have to be much better than male-authored papers. And it seems that this bias is shown by both female and male reviewers. Making submissions anonymous to reviewers does not solve the problem. In my field, most journals send reviewers manuscripts without the author's name on them; but of course reviewers are generally chosen for expertise in the particular topic or subfield. Within a particular area of research, one generally knows who is working on what sort of thing and often knows exactly what people are working on, from conversations and presentations at conferences and research seminars. The solution proposed by the authors of the economics-journal analysis seems right: editors should be aware that, due to bias, reviewers set a "higher bar for female- authored papers", and editors should "take [this] into account in their ... decisions". The question would then be how to "take it into account". One way would be for editors to apply enhanced scrutiny to reviews of female-authored papers. It is often not difficult to see when a reviewer has been excessively nit-picking and/or is simply ill-disposed to the paper's approach and/or has misrepresented what the paper actually says and does. Seeing this does however require the editor to read the submission alongside the negative report and carefully evaluate the report, rather than simply relying on the reports. Applying such enhanced scrutiny would therefore mean more work for editors. But people should not be editors of academic journals (and especially not of 'leading journals') unless they are mindful of their responsibility to their discipline and to academia as a whole; and it is necessary to the health of every discipline and of academia as a whole that publication decisions are fair rather than infected by bias.
The scant evidence you can dig out definitely has multiple interpretations/factors at play, quality of the work I would suggest being the primary one - and also the novelty (which doesn't necessary mean high quality but it could be the 'first'). Especially in this day and age, with so many people working in virtually all areas of STEM, few people would even realise that a lead author was female. The tendency in the vast majority of journal is to use initials and a surname and author lists are often long, with the lead authors very often PhDs/postdocs that most people in the field will not have even heard of. I can't think there are many instances of people ascertaining the gender of a lead author before deciding whether or not to cite a paper. This just doesn't make any sense. Secondly, if you don't cite the main (seminal or at least prominent) papers, it's likely a referee will pick up on it and ask you to do a better literature review. Thus, what tends to be cited is the most prominent, the 'groundbreaking', most up to date with significant extensions and so on. Yes, there is room for shoving in a few other less relevant papers but in my experience what typically drives this is people wanting to cite their own papers/those of friends or laziness on the part of PhDs, who often cite the first one that came up in a google search.
By the way, I've heard inappropriate things said about Chinese author lists but never anything about one with a woman included - again, not that anyone would know in most cases, G.E. Smith could be Gerald or Geraldine and no-one I can imagine would give a sh1t.

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