Reviewing the reviewers
While peer review is considered an essential part of the validation and communication of scientific research, the selection of corps of voluntary expert peer reviewers is an unregulated process. The small amount of data that is available on gender and peer review suggests that women are not participating as peer reviewers in proportion to their active contribution to research. Journal policies and practices vary widely but the confidential nature of peer review means that the extent of gender bias is unknown.
An online survey has been devised with the two main aims of making the methods of recruiting peer reviewers more transparent and of revealing areas where gender bias may be excluding women from the scientific community. The online survey of journal editors will run from the end of August until the end of December 2012. There are three areas of questions:
Gender and journal decision-making. What proportions of men and women make up editorial offices, editorial boards, and peer reviewer panels? Who has the responsibility of choosing peer reviewers?
Reviewer recruitment policy and practice. How are reviewers sought? Do different search methods affect how many women are recruited? What criteria are used to assess scientific expertise and are they fair?
Matching need and opportunity. Do editors need a wider pool of reviewers? Do scientists ask to be reviewers or decline the opportunity? Do journals have a role to play in ensuring gender equality in science?
Current data on women’s participation in peer review will be reviewed and the online strategy of this voluntary project will be outlined with preliminary outcomes. The survey data will be used to highlight examples of good practice in peer review.
Peer review for science journals is a massive global enterprise involving many hours of mostly voluntary work by academics. While the costs of peer review have been estimated in the millions, even billions, of euros, there is added value in becoming a peer reviewer. Being recognised as an expert confers advantages and influence, consolidating careers. Women are not evaluating research in proportion to their contribution to research. For example, three epidemiology journals were estimated to have selected 26.7% women reviewers in the years between 1982 and 1994 (Ref. 1). In 2005 only 16.2% of peer reviewers for Nature Neuroscience were women (Ref. 2). In 2006 the Journal of Neurophysiology selected 30 times more men-only peer review panels than women-only panels while maintaining that peer review was not biased (Ref. 3).
Why focus on gender and peer review opportunities?
Becoming a peer reviewer coincides with the confirmed scientist career stage when women tend to leave research. Peer review is also confidential, even secretive, making it prone to bias. Although mostly independent businesses or organisations, science journals depend on academics as editors, experts, readers and customers and as such tacitly approve of existing sexism in science. There are a vast range of editorial approaches across a vast range of journals, so it is likely that some policies are fairer than others. With the rapid development of technology and the current rethinking of business models in publishing, it is essential that gender is factored into journal decision-making now.
Idea, support, independence and network
The project started as a question raised via the Twitter stream of the European Gender Summit 2011, “Do journals request/record/estimate any stats on gender of authors, editors, reviewers, or staff contributing to publications?” The panellist answered, “Yes - on an ad hoc basis but clearly we need more systematic data collection on gender.”
A Gender Equality in Science grant from the Biochemical Society (UK) was awarded in April 2012 for project completion at the end of January 2013. The renown of the Biochemical Society helps to convince editors to participate in the project.
As an independent bioscience editor with experience of being reviewer and reviewed, it is possible to ask questions that scientists, who are reliant on publishing for career progression, may not feel able to ask.
The survey project was launched at the European Association of Science Editors (EASE) conference in Tallinn, Estonia. Face-to-face networking, badges and flyers were used to persuade editors to sign up.
The website www.apeer.org was set up and a blog started. Blog posts were planned to be short, informal and somewhat provocative. There have been 2250 hits on the website with 700 hits on the top post “Guess who is a peer reviewer”.
The Twitter strategy for @APEERSurvey was to follow anyone with a general interest in science and publishing. A science social media expert helped build an initial global audience by retweeting at strategic times. The furore over the EU “Science - it’s a girl thing” video also helped to make connections quickly. A supportive group of 146 Twitter followers debate and promote the project by retweeting. Some journals found out about the survey first on Twitter and there has been direct dialogue with two new journals challenged about the number of women on their editorial boards.
So far, 14 journals have taken the survey, including some of the largest journals. A wide range of disciplines and journal styles are represented already. Several editorial boards are seriously discussing gender issues now as a result of APEER questions. APEER has benefited from synergy with the newly formed EASE Gender Policy Committee.
From now on, there will be a direct mailing campaign to journal editors before the end of the survey on 31 December 2012. The project will be summarised in an article for The Biochemist in 2013. The survey results and proposals for good practice in selecting peer reviewers will be available in a report on the APEER website next year.