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#PressForProgress in Peer Review

Image by Rachel Ignotofsky

On Thursday, March 8, International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world. Observed for more than 100 years, the annual event seeks to praise women’s achievements and act as a catalyst for change when it comes to gender equality. We look at this year's theme, #PressForProgress, through a peer review lens and analyse which countries are showing more progress than others.

There’s a lack of women in science and research and it’s harming the credibility of scholarly communication.

Singling out the causes of gender imbalance in science is complex. Environmental and social barriers, including stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of university departments and research institutions are all contributing factors [1]. Factors that result in an underrepresentation of women in the workforce with less pay, fewer promotions, and a disappointing number of grants.

According to a report from the US National Science Foundation, the median salary for PhD holders in almost all fields of science and engineering was 24% higher for men in 2016 than it was for women [2]. Female researchers in the United Kingdom also report spending more time teaching and fewer hours conducting research than men, putting them at a disadvantage for promotion [3]. Furthermore, a study last year showed women receive less funding than men in UK institutions: around 75-80% of funding towards infectious disease research was awarded to male principal investigators [4].

Gender imbalance has and continues to set back scientific progress and it disrupts women’s roles as editors, authors, and peer reviewers.

A study by American Geophysical Survey (AGU) found that while the proportion of female reviewers increased from 2012 to 2016, women of all ages had fewer opportunities to take part in peer review [5].

“We found that... women in most age groups were underutilized as reviewers, which can have negative career implications,” Senior Vice President, Brooks Hanson, told us in an interview during Peer Review Week last year [6].

The AGU’s analysis, which was later released in full at the Peer Review Congress in September 2017, indicated that this bias is a result of (mostly male) authors and editors suggesting women as reviewers less often than they do men. They found male authors suggested 16% of female reviewers whereas female authors suggested 22%. Male editors subsequently invited only 18% female reviewers, while female editors went on to invite 22%.

This has to change and it needs to happen now. Peer review is not only the gold standard for maintaining the quality and integrity of published research, it also helps researchers become better writers and more successful published authors. It’s mission-critical that research benefits from a diverse pool of peer reviewers, and that women can both develop their skills and forge those much-needed connections with editors and experts in their field.

Some countries are working towards this faster than others. We wanted to find out which countries these were and what we could learn from them. We also wanted to meet some of the inspiring women reviewers on Publons and learn their thoughts about the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day: #PressForProgress.

Left: Sónia Alexandra Correia Carabineiro; Right: Marta Callejas-Diaz

Top reviewing countries with the most women reviewers

Before revealing which countries have the most--and the most prolific--female peer reviewers, it’s important to note female peer reviewers are very much under-represented on Publons.

This continues to cause concern in our annual Publons Peer Review Awards. These awards celebrate the top performing peer reviewers and, in the two years we have held the awards, we predominantly see men dominating the top spots.

Sónia Alexandra Correia Carabineiro, a chemist and senior researcher at the Faculdade de Engenharia da Universidade do Porto is helping to buck that trend. Sónia is the top female peer reviewer on Publons and she walked away with numerous Peer Review Awards in 2017. She has added more than 560 reviews to Publons, 42 of which were rated “Excellent” by her editors.

Interestingly, while Sónia is the third top reviewer overall from Portugal, she is joined on Publons by many more female reviewers from her country.

When we looked at the percentage of female reviewers in the top 50 reviewing countries on Publons, Serbia came out at the top (42%), and Portugal second (37%).

It’s important to note that we do not collect gender data on Publons. As such, we rely on a tool that predicts gender based on names. The tool analyses the first names of researchers on Publons against the tool’s dataset of popular names for men and women worldwide. This gives us about 40% coverage, which provides enough information for relative predictions, but its limitations should be taken into consideration when reading these results. This is especially given that names from certain countries may be difficult to parse.

Upon seeing this graph, we asked Sónia what #PressForProgress means for her. She replied: “I have never felt discriminated against for being a woman, in science or in any other area. But I know other women who did. So for me, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day means that we should continue to press forward to more gender equality and progress in the world. It is still a "world of men", but slowly we are changing that.”

Countries with the most prolific women reviewers

After discovering which top reviewing countries had the greatest percentage of peer reviewers, we were keen to keep on digging.

On Publons, we list each country’s top peer reviewers by the number of reviews they have added to the platform. Using our gender prediction tool, we looked into how many women were listed in each countries’ top 50 list of reviewers. Here’s what we found:

Interestingly, all of the countries in our top ten list are part of Europe, and most are in Eastern Europe.

Research has pointed to the high number of women in science as a hangover from the Communist regime, the rapid period of industrialization, and the promotion of women's integration into the workforce [7]. With respect to science, this had a substantial impact on the number of women in STEM fields, and as a flow-on effect, the number of peer reviewers

According to the 2015 Eurostat data, the number of women in technology positions in Bulgaria stands at 27.7%. Romania closely follows, as does Latvia, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania [8].

This statistic does contain some bitter truths, however, with men still being three times more likely to reach senior academic positions than women in some of these countries--most of whom are employed in R&D where expenditure is lowest.

What can we learn from these results?

We know it’s time for change and that this change has to happen now. But what’s promising about this, and what the graphs above remind us of, is that once change starts happening, it’s hard to stop it.

It’s important we do more to encourage girls and young women in science and research, and again in peer review. We need to show them they can succeed in order to give them the confidence to flourish.

PhD researcher Marta Callejas-Diaz recently took that approach by creating more visibility for women in science at her Research Centre. She organized a mural with illustrations, photographs, and stories for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February).

Photo supplied by Marta Callejas-Diaz

Marta is a recent graduate of our Publons Academy, which she joined to improve her peer review skills.

“My goal is to write as clearly as possible,” she told us. “Now I’ve graduated from the Publons Academy and know what to look out for, I can avoid the common mistakes that hold back research, and work on advancing my own research and writing skills.”

Marta is working towards her PhD in Forest Ecology and Genetics at the Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria in Spain, and said she knew she wanted to be a biologist when she studied a cell for the first time.

“The more I learn the more I get inspired,” she said.

Publons is taking steps to foster that inspiration in research by encouraging diversity in peer review. We’ll soon release an updated version of the Publons Academy for early career researchers, and the beta-release of our reviewer search tool, Reviewer Connect, is available to try now.

There is still so much more we can do to showcase and encourage top female reviewers in their field, and that requires working together and building off the experience of others.

We asked Sónia, the world’s top female reviewer, if she had any tips for reviewers new on the scene and she replied with salient advice for both young men and women: “Read the paper you are reviewing and be honest about what you think. Do not feel intimidated to say that you think some parts need to be improved. Also, be polite. Provide constructive criticism, be clear, and help authors improve their paper, not put them down.”

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