Analysis and news

Gender, geography and seniority Kim Eggleton wonders: how do we solve the problem of diversity in peer review?

Opportunities to publish scientific discoveries should be open to all, subject to fair peer review. But there is growing evidence the peer review system is not as fair as it could be, and that publishers need to improve equity of opportunity. Theoretically anyone can submit to any journal, but are all submissions assessed in the same way? How can publishers ensure consistent and fair peer review? After all, every manuscript is different and peer review is essentially opinion. So how do we tell if manuscripts are being judged on merit alone? And if there is a problem, what can we do about it? Equality goes hand in hand with

diversity. Countless studies show diversity of thought leads to better science, so surely all publishers should be aiming for contributor diversity? We should ask ourselves: is everyone who submits treated the same, and getting the same opportunities? Is everyone represented, and in the right proportions? These are the questions many publishers, including IOP Publishing, are trying to answer.

What does diversity in peer review look like? The demographics of journal submissions have shifted over time. For example, between 2014 and 2019, IOPP’s submissions from India doubled. But submissions from the USA grew by just 6 per cent. Accepted articles saw similar changes – phenomenal growth in published work from India and China, yet very little growth in accepted work from regions that used to dominate publication output. This no doubt reflects the increased investment some countries are putting into R&D and education, as well as the increasingly global pressure to publish in high ranking journals. One could expect that as the demographic of both submissions and published work has shifted, so has the demographic of those conducting the peer review. On analysing our own data, we (and likely many other publishers) realised our reviewer pools and editorial boards lagged in terms of geographic and gender representation. Long story short: we have

26 Research Information June/July 2020

not kept up with the times. And we need to do something about it. If the demographics of invited reviewers

broadly reflected those of published authors, we should have expected around 27 per cent of invited reviewers to be from China and 11 per cent to be from the USA in 2019. But in reality, only 12.5 per cent of reviewers invited were from China in 2019, compared to 23 per cent from the USA. That is a huge and worrying difference. Why? Because evidence suggests there’s geographical bias in peer review. ‘Reviewers were also more likely to

accept invitations to review articles when the corresponding author was from their region and were more likely to be positive about such articles’ (Gaston & Smart, 2018) ‘US reviewers recommended acceptance of papers submitted by US authors more often than did non-US reviewers’ (Link, 1998). If these studies are correct, the disparity between reviewer and author demographics suggests authors from reviewer-under-represented countries may be disadvantaged, especially under the single-blind review model all our journals operate (some offer a double-blind option in addition). This problem is not unique to IOPP. The Global State of Peer Review report – a study across hundreds of journals and publishers – says: ‘Established regions review more than emerging regions relative

“We have not kept up with the times. And we need to do something about it”

to their respective article outputs’. This is supported by looking at the chances of a reviewer from these regions accepting an invitation to review. Our data shows a reviewer from China is more likely to accept a request than one from the USA. A reviewer from India is even more likely to accept. Looking at career stage shows similar

results. The more senior the researcher, the more likely they are to be asked and the more likely they are to decline. This

has long been the presumption, but it’s striking to see in black and white and it’s concerning. It explains the increasing difficulty in finding reviewers – demand is growing at an incredible rate and the same people (senior academics from mostly Western regions) are being asked time and time again to review. As a group, their numbers aren’t increasing enough to keep up, so they’re fatigued. Sadly, it’s a similar story with gender

balance. Proportions of submissions from women consistently outweigh those of women invited to review manuscripts. Representation on editorial boards is even worse, with some as low as three per cent. Admittedly, we publish in disciplines with poor gender balance, but even so the figures are depressing. Some causes are quite easy to guess; for example, editorial boards mostly consist of senior academics, and fewer women reach these levels due to the ‘leaky pipeline’. But could there be other factors at play? This under- representation of women seems to be the case for other publishers too; The Lancet, Nature and the Royal Society of Chemistry have all made public statements about the lack of gender diversity in their journals, and committed to improve. The causes for the disparity in reviewer

selection are, we believe, multiple and complex. At IOP Publishing we manage the peer review administration on behalf of journal editorial boards, including reviewer selection. Evidence from our editorial teams suggests lack of reviewing credentials puts our in-house editors off using potential reviewers. Although our database has grown with new authors from China, many are early career researchers with little or no reviewing history. This, alongside our editors’ desire to

approach senior academics as reviewers, helps explain some of lack of diversity in reviewer selection. Identifying reasons for the gender disparity is harder. We suspect though, that the lack of diversity on our journal editorial boards is also playing a part. Editorial board members often suggest reviewers, and if they mostly recommend reviewers ‘in their own image’, (as research suggests) it compounds the problem.

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