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The ‘networking effect’: how author networks can cause gender bias in peer review

Gender bias in peer review

A major factor in the under-representation of women in research, gender bias is widespread in scholarly activities, including publications. A report published earlier this year by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) — a publisher of 20 journals — demonstrated that considerable gender bias exists in peer review, a role that is important for career progression in academia. Peer review roles should be appointed solely based on expertise, yet women of all ages are less frequently suggested as reviewers by authors and editors, in particular by males. In a recent interview, Brooks Hanson (Senior Vice President for Publications at AGU) and Jory Lerback (former Data Analyst at AGU) provided an update on their study and discussed how gender differences in author networks may partly explain the bias in reviewer selection.

The initial findings of this large-scale study, presented at the Eighth International Congress on Peer Review and Scientific Publication, show that female authors have an unbiased distribution of co-authors, while male co-author networks exhibit self-gender bias, or ‘homophilia’. Because selection of reviewers is often based on a researcher’s existing author network, this leads to male-dominated reviewer suggestions. Hansen and Lerback express concern regarding this ‘networking effect’, commenting that gender bias could persist “through existing or emerging collaboration networks”, despite more young women entering the research profession. Their findings are supported by another large-scale study published earlier this year, which also found that women are underrepresented in the peer review process, although this study observed editors of both genders operating with substantial homophily.

As well as offering new insights into gender bias in publishing, these recent studies indicate how publishers could use data to monitor gender bias and improve diversity efforts. Increasing the engagement of female researchers with career-enhancing peer review roles will go some way to achieving gender balance in the advancement and retention of researchers.

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Summary by Emma Prest, PhD from Aspire Scientific


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