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Exposing the gender gap in peer reviewing


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Fewer than 1 in 3 peer reviewers for medical journal publications are women.
  • Greater proportions of women peer reviewers are linked to journals with women editors.

The academic peer review system is key in deciding which research gets published. However, as in other areas of academic publishing, women are still under-represented in the peer review system. In a recent article published in BMJ Open, women accounted for under a third of peer reviewers for medical journals, and the gender of editors and editors-in-chief had an impact on this figure.

Dr Ana-Catarina Pinho-Gomes et al analysed the representation of women as peer reviewers and editors of the British Medical Journal Publishing Group. A software-based analysis of given names for over 42,000 peer reviewers for 47 journals found that only 30% were women. Similarly, women made up around one-third of journal editors, but fewer than one-fifth of the editors-in-chief. Journals with a woman editor-in-chief had a greater percentage of women peer reviewers (32% versus 26% for journals with a male editor-in-chief).

Journals with a woman editor-in-chief had a greater percentage of women peer reviewers (32% versus 26% for journals with a male editor-in-chief).

With reference to other analyses, the authors noted that under-representation of women as peer reviewers is even more pronounced for other publishers, including in fields with predominantly women researchers.

The authors proposed a number of potential contributory factors, including:

  • unconscious gender affinity bias
  • men are over-represented in senior academic roles, making them more visible to an editor when nominating reviewers
  • women are disproportionately burdened with invisible workloads, both in and out of work. This phenomenon has been both highlighted and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which there was a decrease in peer review acceptances by women but not by men.

The authors condemned a disappointing lack of change over time, advocating for promotion of gender equity in the pool of peer reviewers. They invite researchers, institutions, and publishing bodies to actively reflect on current practices and to expose any unfair behaviours identified.

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