Gender Bias and the Peer Review Process

September 8, 2016 Emma Sayer

g.jpgDespite increased efforts to improve gender equality in academia, gender bias still affects many areas of science. Anecdotal evidence abounds, and recent studies demonstrate continuing discrimination against women during recruitment and underrepresentation of female researchers in positions of prestige (see here and here).

Fewer research publications are authored by women

Scientific publications are the primary measure of research productivity and quality. Authorship of research papers is an important criterion when scientists compete for grants and when they apply for jobs, promotion, or tenure. Publication success is also a key consideration for appointments to editorial boards, scientific panels, and other positions of prestige. Gender bias in academic publishing (real or perceived) could contribute to the high rate of attrition of women from science careers because publication success, recognition, and reputation go hand in hand.

Although more than half the science graduates in many countries are female, women account for fewer than 30% of authorships in scientific publications. Several factors could explain this discrepancy, some of which indicate bias elsewhere in the research pipeline, but the peer review process represents the single biggest "hurdle" to academic publishing success. If editors or reviewers discriminate against female authors, it will compound many of the issues facing women in research careers — simply because women will have to work a lot harder to achieve the same level of productivity and recognition as men. Two studies published this year used behind-the-scenes data on the peer review process to investigate how gender bias might influence the publication process for women scientists (see here and here).

Investigating gender bias at different stages of the peer review process

Members of the editorial team of Functional Ecology, a leading ecological research journal, used 10 years of data from the ScholarOne manuscript submission system to answer questions about the combined influence of gender and seniority on publication success at Functional Ecology. The studies are intriguing because they combine information about editors, reviewers, and authors to explore potential bias at all stages of the peer review process.

Charles Fox, the Executive Editor of Functional Ecology, and colleagues at the University of Kentucky and the British Ecological Society, explored two key aspects of potential gender bias during peer review. First, they asked whether editor and reviewer gender predict the process or outcomes of peer review. This is an important starting point because editorial boards tend to be male-dominated, which could influence reviewer selection. Second, they investigated authorship patterns on submitted manuscripts to determine whether papers authored by women were less likely to be accepted than papers authored by men.

Authorship patterns reveal differences in career stages

The good news is that papers authored by women were just as likely to be accepted as papers authored by men, and neither editor nor reviewer gender influenced recommendations or decisions. Nevertheless, authorship patterns highlight current discrepancies in the representation of men and women at different academic career stages: Around a third of all authors were women, which reflects the proportion of female researchers in environmental science in Europe and the USA. However, there were more female first authors than expected, probably because first authors tend to be students or postdoctoral researchers. On the other hand, women were underrepresented as last (senior) authors; the last listed author is usually the head of a research group or the principal investigator on a project, and women are still very much underrepresented in these senior research positions.

Influence of peer groups and potential bias towards female editors

Interestingly, female editors invited more women to review than did male editors, and this difference was particularly large for more senior (older) editors, probably because many editors look first to their peers to find suitable reviewers and peer groups are likely more gender-structured for older scientists. Alternatively, it could indicate that open discussion of gender bias is altering perceptions, and younger editors are more aware of female researchers in their field.

Unfortunately, Fox and colleagues also uncovered one pattern in the data that appears to point directly at gender bias: Men were less likely to respond to invitations and less likely to agree to review papers if the editor was a woman. Although the difference was small, the greater proportion of men who declined review invitations from female editors could indicate that subconscious bias in perceptions of academic competence or credibility, which appears to be common among students, also extends to established researchers.

Greater awareness of subconscious bias could be crucial

Both studies at Functional Ecology highlight how improvements in gender equality at higher levels can cascade down the career ladder: Papers with a female senior author were more likely to have a woman as first author, and female editors tended to invite more women to review manuscripts than men — especially if the manuscript was authored by a woman. These results are intriguing because they could either reflect gender differences among subdisciplines of ecology or a greater awareness among women of the need to overcome subconscious bias and promote other female researchers.

Continuing efforts to increase recruitment of women to senior academic positions, including journal editorial boards, are likely to create a more even playing field in academic publishing and improve career chances for junior female researchers — especially in subjects where women are currently strongly underrepresented. Addressing explicit gender bias is the first necessary step to achieve this. The next step, eliminating subconscious bias, will be much harder, especially given that men appear to be less likely than women to believe the results of studies on gender bias in science.

Want to read more about peer review? We’ll be marking Peer Review Week 2016 with daily blog posts around the theme of recognition in peer review. Read them here on Wiley Exchanges, from September 19th - 23rd!

Image credit: pidjoe/iStockphoto

About the Author

Lecturer, Lancaster University // Emma Sayer is a lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University. Her research focuses on how ecosytems respond to change.

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