Scientific Editors Ask for Fewer Women Reviewers

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Yet another way academic culture is biased against women.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

Plenty has been written and said about the hardships women face in science: Women are less likely than men to receive proper training or be hired as professors, but are more likely to be told they’re no good at science. Now, researchers report in a comment published this week in Nature, women are also less likely to be asked to take part in something at the heart of modern scientific research: peer review.

Reviewing other scientists’ ideas before they get published (or funded, in the case of grant reviews) is particularly important for young scientists, Jory Lerback and Brooks Hanson write, because it helps expose them to other scientists, editors, and grant officers they might not otherwise meet. In other words, it helps them network. Going over other researchers’ work with a critical eye can also help develop academic writing skills and expertise. If women are excluded from that process, Lerback and Hanson argue, it could exacerbate the already frustrating gender imbalance in science.

The question is, are women excluded from peer review? And if so, to what extent? To find out, the researchers turned to data from the American Geophysical Union, where Hanson is director of publications—specifically, age and gender data on 59,316 AGU members and another 38,115 people who participated in AGU activities, such as its annual conference. The pair then merged that data with records of the peer-review process for AGU journals, including whom editors had asked to write reviews, from 2012 to 2015.

In that time, women made up 23 percent of all authors and 26 percent of first authors who submitted papers (for comparison, 28 percent of AGU members are women). Women’s papers were also accepted at a slightly higher rate—61 percent for women versus 57 percent for men.

However, only 20 percent of reviewers were women, in large part because women weren’t asked to do the job. Female editors requested women reviewers 22 percent of the time, and male editors requested women reviewers just 17 percent of the time. The same was true of authors’ requests: Female authors requested women review their research just 21 percent of the time, and male authors requested women only 15 percent of the time. (Many journals allow authors to nominate potential reviewers, although editors typically must approve those choices.)

On top of that, women were slightly more likely than men to decline invitations to review a paper, although it was a somewhat smaller effect. Among 20 to 30 year olds, for example, women declined 22 percent of their invitations, while men declined 17 percent.

So what’s to be done? “Hiring more female editors has helped the AGU to mitigate the disparity in recommendations,” Lerback and Hanson write. They suggest that publishers consider ways to educate their staffs on combating gender bias, and that simply encouraging editors to invite more women to review “would be a start.”