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When women are missing from peer review

Scientific journals play a number of crucial roles in developing scientific careers, providing researchers the opportunities both to publish their work and to gain professional recognition by serving as editors and reviewers. How people are chosen for those important responsibilities, however, is often mysterious. An article published in August in the journal Functional Ecology casts light on one important aspect of the process: whether and how gender affects the selection of reviewers.

Examining the peer-review process for every paper submitted to Functional Ecology between January 2004 and June 2014, authors Charles W. Fox and C. Sean Burns of the University of Kentucky in Lexington and Jennifer A. Meyer of the British Ecological Society in London, United Kingdom, which publishes the journal, found that most of the Functional Ecology reviewers were men, but female reviewers became more numerous over the period studied. This trend was largely due to a similar increase in female editors. “[T]he number of women on the editorial board increased and female editors invited more female reviewers than did male editors,” the authors write. “Male editors selected <25% female reviewers even in the year they selected the most women, but female editors consistently selected ˜30–35% female reviewers.”

Given the significant role of editorial and reviewing opportunities in scientists’ career development, journals wanting to 'increase diversity of reviewer populations … should increase gender, age and geographic diversity of their editorial boards.'

Beyond that, women invited to be reviewers were equally likely to accept the invitation regardless of the gender of the editor who invited them. Invited men, however, were less likely to answer or accept invitations when the inviting editor was a woman. Despite women editors’ rising numbers, this reluctance among male colleagues could make it harder for women to do their editorial job and possibly even discourage some from continuing in the role.

Another factor affecting the gender of those chosen to review papers was the age of the inviting editor. When older male editors were doing the inviting, “[t]he proportion of women among selected reviewers decreased” compared to their younger male colleagues (emphasis in original). For female editors, the trend was opposite: The older the editor, the more likely she was to invite women reviewers. “Thus, the gender ratio of selected reviewers differed little between early-career male and female editors but differed a lot between late-career (more senior) male and female editors,” the authors write. 

Given the significant role of editorial and reviewing opportunities in scientists’ career development, journals wanting to “increase diversity of reviewer populations … should increase gender, age and geographic diversity of their editorial boards,” the authors note. One question the study cannot answer, however, is how well the experience at Functional Ecology reflects that at other journals.

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