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Gender Disparity in Peer Review?

The Leaky Pipeline

The quest for gender equality in science is an ongoing one. In 2012 UNESCO reported [1] that female researchers make up only 30% of the worldwide total. In 2008 The United States' National Science Foundation published numbers [2] suggesting an average 39% decrease in female Doctorates employed in academia between those who had been working less than ten years and those working ten years or more.

'Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students', published in PNAS (2012) [3], famously demonstrates an extant bias against female scientists on the parts of both male and female faculty. When presented with applications differing only in the given name of the applicant (John vs. Jennifer), "Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant."

Such barrier to entry may go to explain some of what is known as STEM's 'Leaky Pipeline'. This popular metaphor attempts to describe the phenomenon of gradual decrease in numbers of female scientists as careers advance. Coupled with a lack of role models or early encouragement for female scientists, institutional bias of universities and research institutions decreases the likelihood that female scientists will reach the same career heights as their male peers.

Is there further bias in the peer review process?

APEER's analysis of Journal of Neurophysiology (J. Neurophysiol.)'s 2009 "gender audit" [4] reveals that the proportion of female peer reviewers (over 706 submissions to J. Neurophysiol.) was substantially less than that of female first authors, female last authors or female associate editors. A paper published in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (JECH) in 2003 [5] examines JECH's review process for gender bias and finds that more men than women are invited to review papers (433 vs. 400). Despite these numbers editors reported disproportionately little difference in quality or timeliness. So why were less women involved in review?

It is possible that journals are simply not prioritising gender equality in peer review. A 2012 APEER survey [6] of fourteen journal editors revealed that only half of the journals' editorial board had discussed gender equality at some point during the previous five years, and that none of them had an official policy in place regarding gender and peer review despite all reporting journals having equal opportunity employment policies in place. Furthermore, only one of these fourteen journals attempted to balance the number of men and women invited to review individual manuscripts and only one journal made an effort to find female peers to review papers by women first authors.


Publons' data doesn't contradict these findings. Of our users only approximately 29% are female and that number decreases markedly the closer to the top of the Merit leaderboard you look. For the top 500 reviewers by merit this number drops to 22%, top 100 15% and top 25 5%. The former number is in line with APEER's finding that the one journal who kept track of their reviewers' gender reported 25% female reviewers.

So what can we do?

Promisingly, The European Association of Science Editors established a Gender Policy Commission in 2012. The commission "works to advance gender- and sex-sensitive reporting and communication in science" but has an auxiliary goal of addressing gender inequality in scientific publishing and encouraging gender balance among reviewers and in editorial boards and offices. Expected in the second half of 2015 are a set of recommendations which the Gender Policy Commission hopes can increase awareness of gender disparity and motivate the scientific publishing community toward change [7].

Showcasing female scientists and their achievements as a way of providing encouragement and role models to early career researchers is one of the easiest steps that can be taken toward stopping the 'leaky pipeline'. With this in mind, I would like to introduce Publons' top female reviewer: Alessia Paglialonga.

Alessia is a Research Scientist at the CNR National Research Council of Italy, Institute of Electronics, Computer and Telecommunication Engineering, has edited for Elsevier's Computers in Biology and Medicine and has reviewed 138 papers for 18 journals since 2007. Her coauthored papers on topics such as Technological Developments in Audiology and Biomedical Signal Processing and Modeling have a combined total of 266 citations and with 427 Publons merit Alessia only narrowly missed out on the last quarter's rewards programme.

[1] http://www.uis.unesco.org/FactSheets/Documents/sti-women-in-science-en.pdf

[2] http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/nsf13302/pdf/nsf13302.pdf

[3] http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.abstract

[4] http://www.apeer.org/2012/06/29/peer-review-pie/

[5] http://jech.bmj.com/content/57/12/936.full

[6] http://www.apeer.org/results/

[7] http://www.ease.org.uk/about-us/organisation-and-administration/gender-policy-committee

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