Wall with portraits of female scientists at the Academiegebouw. Photo: DUB

Research into gender bias: ‘Peer reviews are not the issue’

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When it comes to the number of publications, female scientists are still lagging behind their male counterparts. A large study has revealed that this difference cannot be explained by the peer reviews of scientific journals.

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Men are often more successful at getting articles published and have more access to prestigious scientific journals. Peer reviewers are sometimes blamed for this situation, as they are believed to assess manuscripts of male researchers more positively. So far, however, there is little evidence to support this theory. In light of the fact that journal data are confidential, previous studies into peer reviews tended to be limited to specific journals or only a small number of titles.

No efforts spared
But things have changed. Thanks to an agreement reached between various major publishers, including Elsevier and Springer Nature, researchers were able to spare no efforts thanks to access to a selection of no fewer than 145 journals, which included 350,000 manuscripts submitted by around 1.7 million authors and well over 760,000 assessments by a whopping 740,000 peer reviewers.

The study focused on investigating to what extent gender influences ‘the fate’ of a submitted manuscript. The researchers determined this with calculations using algorithms. Of course they were unable to assess the quality of each individual manuscript, but they based their assessments on a number of other variables.

These included research fields, the share of female authors per field, the ‘impact factor’ of a journal, the gender of both the reviewers and all (first and last) authors, and whether or not assessments were anonymous.

Better chances
The research concluded that manuscripts submitted by female scientists do not get worse peer reviews than those of their male counterparts. According to their calculations, for biochemical and health sciences, the chances that articles by female scientists get published are even five percent higher. In life sciences and natural sciences, their advantage is 1.5 percent. Only the social sciences appear to be balanced.

So what is the cause of the publication gap? According to the researchers, one important reason is that women submit fewer manuscripts. For example, only a quarter of the authors of the 350,000 articles used in this study was female.

Skewed impression
The logical follow-up question is what causes this lack of submissions by female authors. Previous studies showed that women believe their chances of publication are smaller because they fear bias. As a result, they may submit fewer articles, the researchers suggest.

Another impeding factor is that higher-up editor positions at scientific journals are mainly occupied by men. They are also more often asked to serve as peer reviewers: in the current study, no less than four out of every five reviewers were male.

This can also give a skewed impression of the publication chances for female authors, warned the researchers, which is why they call for more female editors and peer reviewers at scientific journals.

Lockdown
The timing of this call could not be better, because inequality between male and female scientists is at risk of rising further as a result of the coronavirus crisis. During last year's spring lockdown, considerably fewer women than men submitted articles. Unequal division of childcare tasks is believed to play a role.

The dataset of the current study into gender bias in peer-review processes contains manuscripts and assessments from the period 2010-2016, so well before the start of the coronavirus crisis.

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