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Is there gender bias in the peer review system?

Women are systematically under-represented in academic publishing as authors, referees and editors. But does the peer review system play a role in the publication gender gap? According to a recent study published in Science Advances, manuscripts submitted or co-authored by women are generally not penalised in the peer review process, and those with all-women or cross-gender author lists actually have a higher probability of being published.

Professor Flaminio Squazzoni and colleagues analysed data from almost 350,000 manuscript submissions to 145 journals across biomedicine and health, physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences and humanities. Most of the submitting authors (75%) and referees (79%) were men, supporting previous research on the gender disparity in publications.

Three possible sources of bias were investigated:

  • Editorial selection of referees: manuscripts with a higher proportion of women among the authors were more likely to be reviewed by women. The authors note that this may be an intentional journal preference, or could reflect gender disparity in expert referee roles.
  • Referee recommendations: manuscripts authored by women received more positive reviews in some fields of research. This could reflect manuscript quality: the authors highlight previous studies suggesting that women invest more in their manuscripts to overcome expected editorial bias. For all but one of the research fields, women referees provided more positive recommendations than men.
  • Editorial decisions: in some fields, manuscripts with a higher proportion of woman authors were more likely to be accepted, but there was no systematic bias against manuscripts submitted by women across the journals and disciplines analysed.

Overall, Professor Squazzoni and colleagues found that manuscripts submitted or co-authored by women were generally not penalised during the peer review process.

Manuscripts submitted or co-authored by women were generally not penalised during the peer review process.

However, these results do not mean that peer review and editorial processes are free from bias. Factors such as age, ethnicity, or institutional prestige could influence editorial processes and have gender implications. Moving forward, the authors suggest that greater gender diversity in editorial teams and referee pools could help promote inclusion and participation of women.

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Do you think gender plays a role in peer review and editorial processes?

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