The process of peer-review, underpinned by the integrity (and in most cases volunteerism) of expert reviewers and editorial boards, is a key mechanism for maintaining standards in academic publishing and the validity of research outputs. Of course, there is an inevitable degree of subjectivity and error in peer review, but as academics it is a process that we necessarily submit ourselves to in the expectation that it will be an equitable and transparent process, and that our work will be judged fairly on its merit.
From the perspective of a journal and its editorial board, effort is made to apply a rigorous process to the evaluation of submissions, the assigning of relevant reviewers and the cross-checking of recommendations.
However, almost all academics have their own negative experiences of publishing and have received feedback from reviewers that appears, from the perspective of the author, to be based on biased interpretations and unfounded criticisms. Of course, such experiences often result because, as authors, we have a self-inflated sense of the merits of our work, and sometimes come about because of questionable but honest errors of judgement on the part of reviewers. But there is also reason to believe that, in certain cases, these negative experiences point to discrimination – unfair or prejudiced judgements on the part of reviewers based on the characteristics of the author(s). Some have argued that discrimination is embedded within publishing. Niriella et al (2020) suggest that there is broad acknowledgment that:
“manuscripts originating from institutions in non-Western, emerging economies… are often scrutinised more rigorously by medical journals based in the West than submissions originating from prestigious institutions in Western countries.”
Niriella et al (2020)
African early career researchers from the FSNet Africa programme recently shared their experiences of discrimination in publishing as part of a writing retreat organised through the programme. These experiences included: receiving suggestions from a reviewer that work would be better suited to a local or national journal rather than being of interest to an international audience; feelings of needing to include western co-authors (despite a lack of contribution to the paper) to improve the chances of a positive review; and receiving rejections with brief and inadequate justifications.
It can be difficult to attribute individual experiences, such as these, to discrimination, as such, and more difficult still to extrapolate from such cases to make concrete arguments about the scale or systemic presence of discrimination within academic publishing. However, in response to concern over such discrimination, some publishers are taking strides to more systematically monitor indicators of discrimination within their journals and to strengthen anti-discrimination guidelines and policies within their review protocols.
Frontiers in an example of one publisher who are now routinely auditing their practices to ensure fair peer review, monitor discrimination and promote diversity within audiences and editorial boards.
Editorial teams at Frontiers follow the review process, which is overseen by an appointed Associate Editor, and put in several integrity checks throughout the process to ensure fair and vigorous peer review. Any rejection decisions that are recommended by an Associate Editor undergo additional scrutiny and must be reviewed and approved by the Chief Editor of that section. Finally, to ensure transparency, on publication, reviewer and editor names are published alongside the manuscript.
In addition to journal policies for peer review, at Frontiers each Journal Manager works with the Chief Editors to ensure that editorial board of editors and reviewers is diverse and representative of the field by consolidating the data during regular audits. There is still progress to be made here however. Currently on the editorial board for Frontiers in the Sustainable Food Systems, for example, approximately one third of review and associate editors are from the Global South.
Agrekon is a journal that publishes scholarly articles on Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics with a geographic focus on Southern Africa. As such, a high proportion of its authorship and Editorial Board are from the region. It takes a different approach to ensuring fairness in peer review.
Agrekon applies a double-blind peer review process designed to minimise biases and conflicts of interest. In this process, both the identities of the authors and the identities of the reviewers are kept confidential from each other. The authors do not know who is reviewing their paper, and the reviewers do not know the identity of the authors. This anonymity helps ensure impartial and unbiased evaluations. The journal’s editors consider the feedback from the reviewers and make an editorial decision regarding the manuscript. Agrekon follows the Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines which deals with any misconduct and ensures integrity in the process.
Despite these examples, routinely collected data and enforceable anti-discrimination policies remain limited and inadequate within academic publishing. Drawing inspiration from existing initiatives we propose here some recommendations for publishers in support of their role in further exposing and tackling issues of discrimination in academic publishing:
- Firstly, systematically collecting data on the submission and rejection rates from different parts of the world and different demographics, and data on the representation of different groups within Editorial boards can help to help bring issues of discrimination more clearly to light. There is a role for publishers in sharing this information in transparent ways, and a need for research into discrimination in academia to be commissioned, funded and published to improve understanding and awareness across the academic community.
- Secondly, following double blind peer review processes can reduce the extent to which conscious or unconscious biases enter the review process, and journal management can play a role in ensuring that identifying information does not appear within manuscripts or reviews. Additionally, once the review is finalised, publishing details of the review (e.g. reviewer names and even reviewer comments) alongside papers can provide an extra level of accountability within the review process.
- Thirdly, training for reviewers and editors on unconscious bias and discrimination is desirable. Effective training can help to raise awareness and improve practice. But it is important to recognise, of course, that these are usually voluntary roles undertaken by time-strapped academics, and it is important that reviewers and editors undergoing training are fairly compensated for this additional work.
- Fourthly, journals should have a clear anti-discrimination policy that is published and that reviewers and editors are aware of, and have accepted the terms of, before reviewing.
- Finally and most fundamentally, efforts should be made to increase representation, from under-represented groups (Dada et al., 2022, Dewidar et al., 2022). At one level this is about representation within editorial boards and review panels and it requires that journal actively invite and recruit for these from under-represented groups. But, even if such roles came with support and compensation (which is far from the norm in academic publishing), there is a risk that targeting scholars from under-represented backgrounds places an additional and inequitable burden on those individuals. Ultimately under-representation is deeply-rooted across academia and there is need for multifaceted efforts to address the structural barriers that exist and act to discriminate against different groups across the sector.
As researchers, the papers that we produce are a public presentation of work into which much of ourselves – our time, thought and effort – are invested. To submit this to journal editors and reviewers, and in doing so open ourselves up to scrutiny, criticism, and often rejection, can be an intimidating prospect, but one that we largely accept is a part of maintaining academic quality and integrity. This should not be a process that exposes people to discrimination, that disadvantages individuals or knowledges, or that undermines integrity in the sector.
We are encouraged by efforts to expose and address issues of discrimination within academic publishing and we call for the further sharing, development and implementation of good practice amongst the academic and publishing community.
Some key references:
Dada, S., van Daalen, K.R., Barrios-Ruiz, A., Wu, K.-T., Desjardins, A., Bryce-Alberti, M., Castro-Varela, A., Khorsand, P., Santamarta Zamorano, A., Jung, L., Malolos, G., Li, J., Vervoort, D., Hamilton, N.C., Patil, P., El Omrani, O., Wangari, M.-C., Sibanda, T., Buggy, C. and Mogo, E.R.I. (2022). Challenging the ‘old boys club’ in academia: Gender and geographic representation in editorial boards of journals publishing in environmental sciences and public health. PLOS Global Public Health, 2(6), p.e0000541. doi:10.1371/journal.pgph.0000541.
Dewidar, O., Elmestekawy, N. and Welch, V. (2022). Improving equity, diversity, and inclusion in academia. Research Integrity and Peer Review, [online] 7(1). doi:10.1186/s41073-022-00123-z.
Jemielniak, D., Sławska, A. and Wilamowski, M. (2022). COVID-19 effect on the gender gap in academic publishing. Journal of Information Science, p.016555152110681. doi:10.1177/01655515211068168.
Royal Society of Chemistry (2022). Minimum standards for inclusion and diversity for scholarly publishing. [online] Royal Society of Chemistry. Available at: https://www.rsc.org/new-perspectives/talent/minimum-standards-for-inclusion-and-diversity-for-scholarly-publishing/ [Accessed 8 Dec. 2022].
le Roux, E., 2015. Discrimination in scholarly publishing. Critical Arts, 29(6), pp.703-704
Niriella, M.A., De Silva, A.P., de Silva, H.J. and Jayasinghe, S., 2020. ‘Is there racism in academic medical publishing?’. BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine.
Strauss, D., Gran-Ruaz, S., Osman, M., Williams, M.T. and Faber, S.C., 2023. Racism and censorship in the editorial and peer review process. Frontiers in Psychology, 14, p.1120938.