How Gender Bias Worsened the Peer-Review Crisis

Mounting evidence suggests the peer-review crisis in academic publishing was worsened, in part, by a system that favors male scholars and discourages women.

A new study of nearly 50 journals in the British Medical Journals Publishing Group found that women accounted for less than one in three peer reviewers — scholars who are experts in their field and are critical to vetting new research before it’s published in academic journals. The proportion of female peer reviewers grew by only 2.9 percentage points between 2009 and 2020.

A 2018 global reviewer survey showed similar gaps in other fields; 22 percent of reviewers were female compared to 45 percent male (33 percent were unknown). That’s despite the fact that women make up the majority of non-tenure track instructors at American institutions, and nearly half of tenure-track faculty according to the American Association of University Women.

At a time when journal editors across fields and publishing houses say finding peer reviewers is harder than ever, why aren’t more tapping into the pool of female professors and researchers?

Ana-Catarina Pinho-Gomes, an academic clinical lecturer at the University College London who researches biases against women in medical research, said the gap can be traced back to how editors select reviewers.

In the early days of peer review, journal editors, who were predominantly white men, would mine their own professional networks — also comprised of mostly white men — to find reviewers. Today, most journals use search engines, like PubMed or Google Scholar, and internal databases to identify, track, and make requests of reviewers. In theory, this system would cut down on individual editor bias. But in practice, Pinho-Gomes said, it carries forward biases from earlier in the pipeline of academic research.

Scholars with more published work are more likely to come up in databases and search engines as potential reviewers, Pinho-Gomes said. For decades, research has shown that women have published less frequently than men in part because women still take on the lion’s share of child and elder care for their families, leaving less time for career advancement and research pursuits. Thus, more-published scholars tend to be men.

“Editors go for the big names, and the big names are old men,” Pinho-Gomes said. “Those software tools are going to draw from a pool where men are more concentrated. … Unless you tweak the algorithm to ensure that there is gender parity, then the algorithm will of course throw you more men.”

Many journals also ask authors of submitted research to recommend peer reviewers. According to the 2018 global survey, male authors are more likely to suggest male reviewers, too.

The voices I need to be reviewing that work are individuals from those communities, especially women and faculty of color.

In an article Pinho-Gomes co-authored, she found a correlation between the percentage of women as editors and as reviewers. Essentially, women editors are more likely to find women reviewers. The flip-side is also true of men. But male editors far outnumber female editors; in the study, only one in three editors was a woman and just one in five was an editor in chief.

Altogether, this cycle makes introducing more female peer reviewers nearly impossible without substantive changes to the selection process.

Pinho-Gomes believes a lack of women peer reviewers has tangible effects on the type and quality of research produced. Because men peer-review more, she said, they have more influence over what is prioritized in their field. She pointed to a recent article making waves in the cardiologist community. When she looked at the paper’s supporting data, she noted only about 30 percent of the trial’s participants were women. She wondered whether such research would be accepted as valid if women had more say in the review process.

“It’s still blatant,” Pinho-Gomes said. The evidence suggests that “women are more sensitive to women’s issues on the topics of research and the way we interpret the research is likely to be different.”

Some journal editors who spoke to The Chronicle said they have editorial directives to ensure a gender, geographic, and racial mix of peer reviewers, but that it feels like placing a greater burden on some academics over others.

Kimberley R. Isett, associate dean of research at the University of Delaware and the editor of Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, said that there’s been an explosion of scholarship around diversity, equity, inclusion, and systemic racism and sexism in her field.

“The voices I need to be reviewing that work are individuals from those communities, especially women and faculty of color,” Isett said. Sometimes, it feels like she’s “pulling on the same people over and over again, even if you’re being intentional about spacing the requests out.”

Emerging research has also shown that women are slightly more likely to decline peer-review invitations — the difference is about 4 percent, according to an unprecedented review of all Elsevier journals, one of the largest publishers in the world. The reason, Pinho-Gomes said, is likely similar to the reason women also publish less often. In addition to taking on more household labor, women are more likely to contribute a larger share of internal services, like faculty governance, recruitment efforts, mentorship, or marketing.

During the first wave of the pandemic, research output in nearly every field increased overall, but the majority of those gains came from men. In the Elsevier review, women continued to peer-review at similar levels while their research production dropped. Meanwhile, men were publishing in greater quantity, and the entire peer-review system began groaning under the increased weight.

“We found that across the globe, regardless of the subject area, women authors were hit harder by the lockdown measures than men counterparts in the same category,” said Bahar Mehmani, the reviewer experience lead at Elsevier and one of the study’s authors.

And the effects will likely continue to ripple outwards. Because women have published comparatively less over the last several years, they may continue to show up less in peer-reviewer databases as highly published authors. And the women in their fields who have the most publications could bear the brunt of requests. Pinho-Gomes said that without more efforts to reach out to early career women researchers and create more flexibility and opportunities for women authors, gender parity won’t be possible.

“Quotas may be a way forward in the interim until we overcome these barriers,” Pinho-Gomes postulated. “But the only reason we would need quotas, the only reason we need to have flexibility in careers, is because society itself is unfair.”

Source link


Scoop Sky is a blog with all the enjoyable information on many subjects, including fitness and health, technology, fashion, entertainment, dating and relationships, beauty and make-up, sports and many more.

Related Articles

Back to top button