Addressing Sexism in Scientific Publishing

Sexism in Scientific PublishingBarely a few days have passed since the last gender bias in science crisis, and the scientific community is already dealing with yet another high-profile example of gender discrimination. This time, the issue is with sexism in science publishing.

Dr Fiona Ingleby, a postdoctoral researcher in evolutionary biology from the University of Sussex, took to Twitter to express her frustration over sexist comments by a reviewer from a journal by PLOS ONE, an open access publishing network. Dr Ingleby and her colleague, evolutionary biologist Dr Megan Head from the Australian National University, are both women. They had submitted a manuscript based on their research on gender differences amongst students moving from PhDs to postdoctoral roles. The reviewer rejected their manuscript on the basis of the researchers’ gender, suggesting the data would be more fit for publication if they included a male author. In other words, the science of gender bias can only be “objective” if a man is involved. I’ve previously noted that women’s research on gender bias in science is often rejected by men, who, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, will argue that gender bias either does not exist, or if it does, it is is skewed in women’s favour.

“Get a Man’s Name”

Below are Ingleby’s tweets, which led to a renewed social media discussion about women’s exclusion in science, which includes having to fight against the idea that sexism is dead.

Many researchers have spoken out about this case of gender discrimination, including Professor Katie Hinde, who links to existing research on women’s disadvantage in science publishing, and how we might better measure this gender bias. Various media have interviewed Dr Ingleby, who waited a month for her complaint about the reviewer’s sexism to be addressed. Having been ignored, she shared her story on Twitter, which ultimately led to PLOS ONE dismissing the reviewer and publicly stating it will accept the manuscript for review under the guidance of a new editor

Professor Michael Eisen is one of the co-founders of PLOS. He has written a lengthy reflection on this incident. It is commendable that Professor Eisen is not only addressing this issue in public, but that he is also seeking advice on ways to prevent sexism on PLOS in the future. Below are the comments I made on Professor Eisen’s blog.*

Practical Ways to Address Publishing Bias

My colleagues, Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe and Professor Rajini Rao, and I have covered the issue of sexism in academic publishing on STEM Women. While the context was different, the broad suggestions we made have relevance here. We suggested that publishers needed to set clear gender equity and diversity guidelines that are communicated to editors, authors and their readers. We see that better training on sexism should be provided. We also argue there needs to be a system of accountability, which Professor Eisen alludes to in his post.

Academic and research institutions need to implement safeguards to prevent sexism and harassment, as well preventative measures to support positive change. All too often in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), we find ourselves being reactionary to public crises and media outcry. It’s time for institutions to become proactive.

There are career repercussions for sexual harassment and abuse in other aspects of academic life; publishing should be no different. There needs to be policies in place that define behaviour that is unacceptable, and a plan to address these issues swiftly. Transparency is one central way to achieve gender equity. Greater collaboration between publishers and academic institutions would help to better regulate discrimination, and to train researchers, reviewers, editors and others.

Here are some general suggestions:

  • Publishers should be clear about their gender equity policies, including what they are doing to improve women and under-represented minorities’ participation and representation in scientific publishing
  • Set out the complaints procedure and consequences for sexism (and other forms of discrimination and exclusion). Optimise this process so that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other forms of abuse and discrimination are handled swiftly. The aim should be to reduce damage to the women and minorities who launch a complaint, and to reach an equitable resolution for these under-represented authors
  • Provide mandatory training materials to editors. Training materials can be hosted online. PLOS might even consider setting up a short online training “course” (1 hour for example) covering basic principles, such as awareness about unconscious bias as well as PLOS ONE’s policies and commitment to gender bias
  • Professor Eisen rightfully points out that it’s already very tough to get reviewers to volunteer to help academic journals given these duties are unpaid. Nevertheless, reviewers should be directed to gender policy guidelines about gender inclusion and the consequences for abuse, harassment or bias. Ideally they would be offered the option to complete training to further support their understanding of gender equity policies. Ultimately, however, editors should be acting as gatekeepers for abuse of power and discrimination, and they should be advocates for gender diversity
  • Those who manage the complaints should also be given mandatory training on gender and diversity

Leaky Pipeline in STEMProfessor Eisen is wise to presume this is unlikely to be an isolated incident. If sexist abuse escaped one PLOS editor it is safe to assume there may be other examples. Even if most reviewers and editors are professional and fair, incidents such as this have broader implications, given the so-called “leaky pipeline” in STEM. For the benefit of other readers: this term describes how women are already disadvantaged at every step of their education and careers. Institutional barriers and everyday experiences of bias at every stage increase the likelihood that women will drop out of academia.

As a mid-to-long term plan, PLOS might consider addressing gender bias as an ongoing commitment. This may include hiring independent evaluators to assess how PLOS’s current structure and review process might be improved to increase gender diversity. There are many useful models being used around the world that have practical outcomes. For example, see the research by Professor Frank Dobbin on establishing a diversity workforce for improving the workplace; Professor Joan William’s research on bias interrupters for sexism and racism in academia; and the Athena SWAN Charter. While these processes are geared more to corporate policies and higher education reform, the principles can be adapted to scientific publishing.

 Safeguards against sexismThe incident at hand may present an opportunity for PLOS to move towards becoming a publishing leader on gender diversity. Professor Eisen and the PLOS Board might consider leveraging their publishing networks to see how PLOS and other science publishers might collaborate on gender equity and inclusion. Addressing industry standards is one way to address discrimination. Collaborating in partnership with other institutions in higher education, medical research and so on would also go a long way to pre-empting future problems that alienate women in STEM from submitting their papers to science publishers.

Learn more on STEM Women’s work on addressing gender bias in science publishing, or watch our video discussion on women in science publishing with editors from Nature, Scientific American and Digital Science.


* My comments are reproduced with minor edits to improve the flow of my post.
Photo: Original by Francisco Osorio, CC 2.0 via Flickr. Adapted by Zuleyka Zevallos.

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