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Female and nonbinary scholars call for socially just practices in scientific publishing


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • A group of female and nonbinary scholars provided key recommendations for developing socially just practices in scientific publishing.
  • Scientific publishing can become more socially just by considering the barriers faced by historically excluded groups.

A now-retracted Nature Communications article from Bedoor AlShebli et al suggested that female scientists were less impactful as mentors and mentees than male scientists. In response to this article, representatives of 500 Women Scientists, GeoLatinas, and LatinXinBME issued a call to action, producing 10 recommendations to make scientific publishing more socially just:

  1. Critically examine and challenge existing scholarship. Scientific studies that speak directly to social identities and issues require meaningful engagement with scholars from fields such as humanities and social sciences, to ensure they do not perpetuate stereotypes or harmful power hierarchies. In their critique of the AlShebli et al article, the authors highlight that a lack of critical thinking about the use of certain tools, including software that infers gender from name, risks flawed analysis and can harm marginalized populations.
  2. Recognise that research processes already reflect society’s power dynamics. Journals should set standards for evaluating how culture and power are part of the scientific process. This could include asking researchers to identify and challenge how power dynamics impact study design, constructs, methodologies, and interpretation of results. The AlShebli et al article used the number of publications and citation counts as proxies for successful mentorship, thus emphasising what their detractors describe as the current system of power within academia. This fails to represent the human connection vital for good mentorship and incorrectly suggests that co-authorship of papers implies mentorship.
  3. Acknowledge that data are not neutral. Researchers, peer reviewers, and journals should examine whether study data account for social inequalities and power dynamics. Historically, women in science have had access to fewer resources and opportunities than their male counterparts. Discussion of such intersectionality was not included in the AlShebli et al article.
  4. Think critically about the broader impacts and potential harms of research. The authors believe that the conclusions of the AlShebli et al article perpetuate the damaging idea that women are of less value than men, rather than examining unjust systems that can impact on measures of productivity. They further suggest that editors and publishers should include the consideration of societal factors in journal review criteria.
  5. Ensure that editors and reviewers have appropriate expertise to assess potential biases of a study. The authors suggest that journals should diversify their editor and reviewer pools, and use peer reviewers with expertise in education and critical theories in addition to those with scientific/technical knowledge.

The authors assert that publishing criteria should be produced that do not blame historically excluded groups for the barriers and limitations they face in science.

  1. Examine and acknowledge positionality. Authors, editors, reviewers, and organisations should acknowledge and discuss how their positionality might shape findings and decisions.
  2. Foreground methods. The materials and methods section should always be included within the main manuscript text – ideally before the results – to provide context.
  3. Define constructs. Authors should be required to define and provide references supporting their work’s central constructs, including any underlying assumptions.
  4. Honour and incorporate critical commentary. Journals should consider adding disclaimers to address any community concerns raised following the publication of an article.
  5. Acknowledge science’s long and violent history of exclusion. The authors emphasise that to break patterns of publishing faulty and harmful research, we must all consider the history of exclusion within our own fields.

The authors assert that publishing criteria should be produced that do not blame historically excluded groups for the barriers and limitations they face in science. Within our own spheres of scientific research and publishing, they stress that we should all commit to practices that help to understand and eliminate inequality.

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What do you think – are journals doing enough to ensure socially just scientific publishing practices?

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