Research increasingly shows how gender affects the peer-review process, and how it doesn’t. For example, some studies indicate that editor gender appears to have some influence over gender diversity among peer reviewers, but gender of authors, editors and reviewers may not necessarily influence which papers are accepted or rejected.

With this nuanced understanding of gender, some journals are trying to minimize its effect by creating more diverse editorial boards and establishing reviewer mentoring programs. Researchers say the goal of both efforts is to increase the number of female reviewers, which in turn should lead to more career advancement for women.

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Editorial Board Diversity

Dr. Charles Fox, a Professor of Entomology at the University of Kentucky and Executive Editor of the journal Functional Ecology, has been studying gender in peer review for several years. Based on his research, he recommends that journals increase diversity on their editorial boards, which should lead to increased diversity among reviewers.

“At Functional Ecology, we have insisted on both gender and geographic diversity on our Board,” stated Fox.

The journal has used two approaches to increase diversity on the editorial board: an open call, which can create awareness of scientists who might have been overlooked, and active recruitment, which includes diversity as an objective.

“It’s best to combine approaches,” said Fox. “The one approach that is used most often is the worst, which is personal experience.”

The two-pronged approach has served the journal well. In 2004, the journal had four senior editors, all of whom were male. In 2005, the journal started recruiting associate editors, and during that year, assembled an editorial board that was 10% female. By 2016, when Fox published his results, the percentage of female editors had increased to about 38%. Fox’s data shows that as editor diversity increased over time, so did female representation among reviewers, from 17.6% to a high of 27.3% in 2012.

“Most of the change in the gender ratio of reviewers appears to be driven by an increase in the number of female editors recruited to handle papers for the journal,” Fox and his colleagues state in their article. Currently, with about 100 associate editors, the gender balance is about 55% male and 45% female.

Fox attributes gender disparities in reviewer selection to the same biases we all share.

“People mostly recommend people they know, who tend to be like themselves,” said Fox. “When decisions about who to invite are based on subjective means, it’s not going to be a diverse pool of people.” This is true not only when inviting reviewers but also when nominating award recipients or identifying authors to write review papers.

Fox believes the antidote to such bias in reviewer selection is to use data and seek out people who have published on the topic in question.

“Look at the literature,” he said. “Avoid using personal experiences; in fact, don’t use them very much, but search the literature.”

Still, creating a more diverse editorial board has been a challenge. One reason is that women are less likely to take on the role.

“It’s harder to recruit women to editorial boards,” Fox said. “If you ask them, they are more likely to say no. They also don’t apply as often as do men to advertisements for editor positions.”

To understand why, Fox has reviewed invitations to women who have been asked to join the editorial board and their responses. When declining to serve, they often cite similar reasons.

“The general pattern is that women have more commitments outside of work. This is part of a bigger problem affecting whether women stay in science.”

Mentoring Programs

That bigger problem has also been on the mind of Dr. Hannah Buckley. An Associate Professor at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, she has studied gender and peer review at the New Zealand Journal of Ecology. She and her colleagues found a real, albeit small, relationship between gender of editors and reviewers.

“Although the effect of associate editor gender on the selection rate of female versus male reviewers was not strong, there was nonetheless a trend for female editors to select more female reviewers than did male editors, suggesting that editors could probably improve female selection rates on the whole,” her article states.

One way that the New Zealand Journal of Ecology has been trying to increase participation in peer review is through a reviewer mentoring program.

“Our journal has a mentoring scheme for early career researchers, such as first-time reviewers and PhD students,” said Buckley. “Early career researchers are paired with more senior reviewers and the reviews are completed together.”

Dr. Tim Curran, Senior Lecturer in Ecology at Lincoln University, New Zealand, was instrumental in setting up the program in 2013. About 50 people have signed up, and the effort has been considered a success.

“The biggest benefit is that it has served its primary purpose and provided inexperienced reviewers with extra opportunities to review, which has led to them ‘graduating’ to do reviews on their own,” said Curran. “This has meant that these scientists have had better training in peer review than they otherwise may have, and have subsequently also contributed in a small way to easing the burden on an overloaded system.”

Buckley and colleagues hoped when the program began that expanding the reviewer pool to include postdocs and students would increase participation among women. Those populations, they state in their article, “contain a large source of potential female reviewers, and so we argue that the lower female selection rate is more due to a lack of female ‘visibility’ than availability.”

Increasing female participation, coupled with enhanced recognition of reviewers in general through services such as Publons, Buckley said, should increase diversity throughout the ranks of journals.

“Indeed, if service, including peer review, is highly valued in the hiring and promotion process, then we should encourage the female reviewer rate to be higher.”

Curran does think the program has increased the diversity of the reviewer pool, but cannot quantify the results.

“I would suggest that it has increased geographic diversity, as we have had people register from a wide range of countries,” he said. “It may have increased diversity in other ways too, but I do not have the data at hand to confirm this.”

The idea is catching on. Fox said Functional Ecology started a mentoring program for associate editors in 2017, and four BioMed Central journals launched a mentoring program for reviewers earlier this year, with similar goals.

“Ultimately, we hope this pilot will bring more diversity and inclusivity to the peer review process,” wrote Ella Flemyng, Journal Development Manager, in a BMC blog post. “We also envision that this pilot will particularly help the journals directly involve more early career researchers in peer review (who are often not very ‘visible’ via their publication record).”

The goal of all these efforts, of course, is more equal representation of women in science. Buckley’s article cites studies that show the benefits of increasing the presence of women in the workplace, including improvements in management and better student outcomes in universities. But the paper also cites research showing that women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, even though they enter these fields at almost the same rates as men. Increasing participation by female scientists in peer review, Buckley said, should “bolster the experience, confidence and visibility of those women who are more likely to fall out of STEM fields after postgraduate study,” which would be a positive step toward gender equity in science.

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