Underrepresented groups in academia face diverse challenges, including limited access to resources (funding, institutional support, etc.) as well as bias and discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality, leading to unfair evaluations of their work. Further, researchers from non-English-speaking countries may face language barriers, which can lead to difficulties in communicating their findings confidently and effectively to the broader academic community. The lack of diversity among editorial boards and peer reviewers perpetuates these inequalities because of difficulty in understanding the magnitude of these challenges.
A recent study of six prominent science education journals for their approach to addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in peer review revealed a notable North American-centric focus and a predominant representation of White individuals. As per a Publons survey, peer reviewers predominantly hail from well-established regions (68.1% of reviewers, and a whopping 96.1% of editors), and the majority are male.
This scenario calls for concerted efforts from the academic community, publishers, and institutions to promote diversity and inclusion and address bias in peer review.
How peer review contributes to inequalities
Peer review is an important pillar that upholds academic publishing, and the opportunity to participate in peer review must be equitably available. However, some aspects of peer review exacerbate the challenges faced by underrepresented groups.
Prevalent biases within academic circles
Like any human being, peer reviewers are prone to inherent biases. Unconscious bias might influence how peer reviewers perceive and evaluate research from underrepresented authors or authors with less prestigious affiliations. They may evaluate research from underrepresented authors more critically, or conversely, they may favor research authored by people from backgrounds similar to their own. A study on thousands of Frontiers journals highlighted that even with gender parity policies in place, publishers or editors are prone to homophilic bias, i.e., they choose reviewers of their own gender. This inclination is more prevalent among men than among women and can skew reviewer selection.
Lack of diversity in editorial boards and reviewer pools
Editorial boards play a crucial role in selecting reviewers and shaping the journal’s direction. If these boards lack diversity, the selection of reviewers and the editorial decisions will not adequately reflect the interests and concerns of underrepresented groups. Similarly, if the pool of peer reviewers does not have a range of backgrounds and perspectives, the significance of research that addresses issues relevant to underrepresented groups might be overlooked. What’s more, capable potential reviewers may be flying under the radar, never to get a chance to participate in a large part of academic discourse.
How editors and peer reviewers can support diversity in scholarly publishing
There are systemic inequalities in society, which are reflected even in academia. For example, when journal editors look for peer reviewers, they typically turn to researchers from high-profile institutions, often found in wealthier nations. As a result, reviewers end up being from a pool that’s already homogeneous. While expertise in the article’s subject matter remains crucial in selecting a reviewer, a diverse mix of reviewers infuses unique perspectives and prevents the loss or neglect of important voices.
Awareness and training about unconscious bias, cultural sensitivity, and the importance of DEI across editorial boards and reviewer pools must be increased. Transparent peer review processes and explicit evaluation criteria can help mitigate subjective judgments and focus the review on the quality and rigor of the research. Journals can also transition towards various models of anonymous or masked peer review to alleviate bias.
Best practices in publishing to help peer reviewers protect and promote diversity
The importance of implementing best practices for DEI is being widely recognized. These practices work to enhance diversity in disciplines; racial, ethnic, and global representation; institutional variety; gender balance; and cultural and linguistic inclusiveness. Embracing such practices will reflect a journal’s dedication to ethics and transparency and will drive a wider readership.
1. Providing peer reviewer training
Training about unconscious bias and diversity-related issues can help current and future peer reviewers make more objective and fair evaluations. Many publishers and journals provide such resources; for example, as a part of their Ethics in Peer Review module, the American Chemical Society has a video on recognizing potential bias in peer review. Similarly, the American Heart Association has an unconscious bias training video for their reviewers. Meanwhile, Taylor and Francis offers training videos that discuss the importance of diversity in peer review.
Reviewers should also be trained to provide constructive and respectful feedback. American Psychological Association (APA) Publishing came out with a DEI toolkit for journal editors, which includes guidelines for appropriate language and terminology, checklists, etc., besides resources for training reviewers to provide fair and balanced review reports.
2. Working towards diverse editorial boards and reviewer pools
Journal editors have a leadership role in their fields and can drive change. Take for instance Yana Suchy, Editor-in-Chief of The Clinical Neuropsychologist. She realized that women and professionals from different ethnic backgrounds were underrepresented on the editorial boards of clinical neuropsychology journals. She took a series of steps to address this gap, and in three years, the number of women on the board increased to 50%, and the number of non-Caucasian members increased to 13%!
In the same vein, journals should actively seek out a diverse pool of reviewers who can provide a range of perspectives and expertise. To drive diverse reviewer selection, editorial boards should actively recruit early-career reviewers, woman reviewers, those from the Global South, etc. Many publishers are working in this direction. Springer Nature came out with an in-depth guide targeting editors-in-chief to address diversity and inclusion in reviewer pools. Nature journals have made a commitment to increase diversity in peer review. Such measures lead to tangible results as well. Two years after implementing various changes to tackle the disappointing gender imbalance in its reviewer pools, the journal Cell achieved their goal of one-third of the reviewers being women.
3. Popularizing anonymous reviews
Double-blind peer review, where the identities of both authors and reviewers are hidden, minimizes potential bias based on authors’ identities. Double-blind peer review is believed to address disparities to some extent. Institute of Physics (IOP) Publishing began offering authors the option of single- or double-blind review for two journals, Biomedical Physics and Engineering Express and Materials Research Express. There was an uptick in authors choosing the double-blind route, with most of them reporting that they saw it as fairer than single-blind peer review. Triple- and quadruple-blind approaches have also been indicated as a route to reduce bias in peer review.
4. Establishing reviewer and editorial guidelines
It is imperative to clearly communicate evaluation criteria to reviewers, emphasizing the importance of evaluating research quality, originality, and significance. Similarly, for editorial decisions, editors must evaluate papers solely based on their quality and contribution to the field, irrespective of their alignment with mainstream perspectives. In a remarkable example of peer review upholding diversity and inclusion, Himmatrao Bawaskar’s journey from an impoverished background to Lancet’s pages showcases the journal’s commitment to impactful science, looking beyond obscure provenance and linguistic barriers. Bawaskar delved into the scorpion bite problem rampant in rural Maharashtra, India. His seminal findings helped reduce fatality rates from 40% to <1%. Inclusive peer review plays a pivotal role in shining the light on orphan or neglected diseases by recognizing the value of breakthroughs that transcend language.
While considerable headway is being made, achieving representative diversity in peer review across the board will take sustained effort. It is important to recognize that diversity should be considered in conjunction with broader disparities, and that mere tokenism will not be enough. For a truly equitable knowledge system, peer review has to be committed to including and representing diverse academic voices.