How does gender influence the academic publishing process?

Gender and diversity issues are taking center stage and there is growing awareness of the under representation of women as authors, editors and peer reviewers in academic publishing. Here we discuss with Dr Dina Balabanova (Associate Professor, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Section Editor for BMC Health Services Research) and Jamie Lundine (Research Associate, University of Ottawa) – and co-authors of a Comment in the May 5th edition of The Lancet – their particular interests in this area and what they would like to see change in the future.


How did you first become interested in gender diversity in the peer review process?

Dina: My interest began at the Fourth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in 2016 where all talk was about a comment published by The Lancet highlighting how the Global Symposia have been dominated by authors from the Northern hemisphere who often conduct research on low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs). This was seen to undermine efforts to build capacity and drown the voices of national individuals and institutions in LMICs who work often with severely constrained resources.

Interestingly, the analysis revealed that men and women researchers were equally likely to attend and present. However, later on, conversations with friends and colleagues suggested a less positive picture of the experience of women academics working in global health. Publishing—the bread and butter of academic research—was seen as particularly problematic.

It struck me that we know very little about why women are less represented as authors, editors and journal editorials board members.

It struck me that we know very little about why women are less represented as authors, editors and journal editorials board members. There is even less evidence on these experiences in countries and regions where women are particularly underrepresented in higher education and academia.

In my role on the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s (LSHTM) Athena SWAN self-assessment committee, I started considering how we could apply similar analyses to gender and geographic disparities in peer review and publishing. Given a growing commitment to gender and diversity in the BMC journals where I serve as a Section Editor, I felt it is paramount to take action.

Jamie: I arrived at LSHTM as an MSc student in 2016-2017. I have a background in health and international development, having previously lived and worked in Nairobi, Kenya. I was eager to explore patterns in gender and leadership within global and public health, as I had experienced my own leadership challenges, as well as recognized those my friends and colleagues faced.

In January 2017, Dr Balabanova initiated conversations with BMC and Professor Ivy Lynn Bourgeault from the University of Ottawa on the topic; and we have since collaborated on an analysis of gender data of authors in two BMC journals, as well as in the workshop outlined in The Lancet Comment. The more I learned, the more I came to appreciate that academic publishing is an important channel for influencing public health and international development policies, that can ultimately lead to improved health and well-being.

What research have you done into the issues?

In our research, we asked: how does gender influence the academic publishing process? And what do we know about this particularly within the field of public health? We quickly realized that not much had been done in public health and we sought to learn from approaches in other disciplines. Academic publishing should be seen as an integral part of the academic system, and we found that gender inequities are mirrored in peer review and academic publishing.

We began with a qualitative inquiry into the experience and perceptions of fifteen senior editors at public health journals, from BMC and other publishers. In parallel, we conducted a review of the literature on the topic – much of which is quantitative and conducted in clinical medicine or other disciplines that are tangential to the field of public health.

The in-depth interviews and literature review informed a consensus workshop on gender equality in peer review journals, which we document in our comment in The Lancet. The workshop brought together seventeen experts with relevant practical experience and gender and diversity expertise to explore how to move the agenda forward.

What do you think has to happen next?

Using a gender equity plan, that integrates data collection, training and on-going monitoring, journal editors can give greater visibility to women, to authors from LMICs and to those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

We would like to call for action on gender inequity in publishing as a step towards addressing broader issues. Specifically, we see an opportunity for editors, journals and publishers to actively tackle systemic gender inequity. They can do this through collecting and providing the necessary gender and diversity indicators and developing concrete gender equity plans, for example focusing on authors of invited content, peer reviewers and editors.

Unconscious bias training should be available for editors, as well as peer reviewers and even authors! Using a gender equity plan, that integrates data collection, training and on-going monitoring, journal editors can give greater visibility to women, to authors from LMICs and to those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

We plan to develop practical guidelines for editors and publishers in collaboration with the European Association of Science Editors, Gender Policy Committee. The initial Sex and Gender Equity in Research (SAGER) guidelines, published in 2016 in Research Integrity and Peer Review, were developed by the Committee to focus on the issue of underreporting of sex and gender in design, implementation and reporting. We want to expand the guidelines to include gender balance of authors, peer reviewers and editors, recognizing that having a more diverse workforce will lead to better science.

We would encourage journals to take an equity lens – one that recognizes historical injustices and actively works to counter systemic biases.

Is there scope for institutions and publishers to work collaboratively on these issues?

Absolutely. We call for a coordinated effort across institutions and disciplines and see such collaboration as fundamental to achieving systemic change, both in academic publishing and more broadly. We are at a significant moment in time – gender and diversity issues are taking center stage. Academic publishing provides a key platform for the advancement of ideas, and thus must be part of testing and communicating evidence-informed solutions to systemic gender inequity.

We are looking forward to discussing gender and diversity in research at a forthcoming workshop with BMC and Springer Open Editors in June. We encourage academic publishers and journals to learn from diversity initiatives in academia, such as ADVANCE in the United States and Athena SWAN in the UK.

Finally, as we take our research and action forward, we invite other individuals and institutions to contact us about how to get involved.

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Michael Fine

Considering the number of words in this article, I didn’t learn much except that some people are interested in the issue. In my experience, women are just as tough as men when it comes to reviewing.

Kelly Soldavin

In response to the above comment, I think it is less an issue of the quality of peer review and, rather, as explained in the interview, an issue of evaluating the gender disparity in the number of men and women performing peer reviews (and other academic publishing roles) and the factors that contribute to it. These factors are being addressed by developing best practices and bringing awareness to the issue of gender disparity (and to the unintentional biases that may be at play).

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