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Too few women scientists are invited to review academic journal manuscripts

Scientific_journal_icon.svgAs a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I reviewed manuscripts for several academic science journals and acted as an editor for an engineering journal.

This makes me an exception, according to a commentary recently published in Nature that reveals a gender bias in the review of scholarly publications. Journals invite too few women to referee, write commentary authors Jory Lerback, a graduate student at the University of Utah, and Brooks Hanson, PhD, director of publications at the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

The peer review process plays a critical role in the validation of research by allowing experts to scrutinize the work of fellow scientists before research results are published. Participating in this review process is also critical to a scientist’s career. The commentary explains:

Participation as a reviewer for papers and grants has many benefits, particularly for early-career scientists. It is a chance to develop a relationship and make a positive impression with an editor, review-panel member or programme manager, who are typically senior scientists and are in turn likely to be involved in evaluating the reviewer’s future papers and grants.

Unfortunately, Lerback and Hanson found that women of all ages have fewer opportunities to act as a reviewer for AGU journals.

Using membership and editorial databases, they identified the age and gender of authors, reviewers and editors for AGU manuscripts from 2012 to 2015 — creating a dataset that included more than 24,000 authors, nearly 15,000 reviewers, nearly 100,000 reviewer suggestions by authors and 119,000 reviewer requests by editors.

Analysis of this dataset showed that only 20 percent of reviewers were women, proportionally less than expected as 28 percent of AGU members were female and 27 percent of first authors were female. This difference was observed across all ages, so it was not due to editors seeking more senior reviewers who are predominantly male.

The problem, they found, was due to a gender bias in reviewer selection. At AGU, authors suggest reviewers at submission and editors prepare a final list. However, both authors and editors nominated fewer women to review. Female first authors suggested female reviewers 21 percent of the time, whereas male first authors suggested women just 15 percent of the time. Similarly, female editors recommended female reviewers 22 percent of the time compared to 17 percent for male editors.

Is this just a problem for AGU journals? The authors don’t think so. As the largest Earth and space science society and publisher, they argue that AGU is a good proxy for STEM demographics in the United States. In addition, they suggest that similar problems exist at funding agencies.

The researchers recommend that publishers hire more female editors and train their staff to combat this gender bias.

Previously: Study finds that academic papers authored by women tend to be cited less often and NIH’s Hanna Valantine shares insights on workplace diversity
Image by Slawek Borewicz

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