One of the primary ways that inequities are established and perpetuated within scholarly communication is via the gatekeeping function of editorial boards and peer reviewers. Both roles play a significant part in determining what kinds of topics are deemed worthy of publication and which particular articles are chosen to address those topics. 

A lack of diversity in these gatekeeping roles can result in barriers to publication for scholars working in new fields, those challenging the status quo, and many who lack the connections to well-established scholars in their field. These kinds of biases and inequities can have detrimental consequences for the careers and retention of scholars and researchers who don’t “fit the mold”–in turn resulting in an ongoing lack of diversity in academia and a narrowed body of research within the scholarly record.

Peer review

A recent study of submissions to the open access journal eLife between 2012 and 2017 found that a significant lack of diversity among peer reviewers resulted in similarly homogeneous authorship: “Women and authors from nations outside of North America and Europe were underrepresented both as gatekeepers (editors and peer reviewers) and authors” (Murray et al., 2019). The data showed higher rates of acceptance where authors shared the same gender and national identity as the peer reviewers. This preference pattern was also visible in a study of journal editors for the open access publisher Frontiers, who typically selected reviewers matching their own gender, whether male or female – indicating that similarity bias can exist within both dominant and underrepresented groups (Helmer, Schottdorf, Neef, & Battaglia, 2017).  Amplifying structural biases within peer review, scientists in well-resourced countries typically review up to three times more papers than they submit, whereas researchers in less well-resourced nations typically review fewer papers than they submit, an imbalance attributable to “geographical biases in the appointment of editors and their reliance on local reviewers” with editorial and peer review networks predominately centered in well-funded, research producing nations (Publons, 2018).

Models of peer review

These kinds of “social bias,” which can manifest not only geographically, but also in terms of language, race, ethnicity, ability, age, and gender, can perpetuate inequities across scholarly communication, thus reinforcing established networks. Publishers have experimented with a variety of peer review models to try to reduce biases, typically by masking identities through an anonymous peer review process (previously referred to as “blind” peer review). Initially, anonymous peer review processes focused on obscuring the identity of the reviewer but not the author, thus failing to address any potential bias among reviewers. However, the switch to “double-anonymous” or “double-anonymized” peer review, where both the author and the reviewer remain anonymous to each other, was shown to significantly increase the percentage of articles with women as first authors within a specific ecology journal (Budden et al. 2007) and to increase the scores of submissions from women to a linguistics conference (Roberts & Verhoef, 2016). Double-anonymous peer review has proved an effective method for preventing reviewers from accurately guessing the identities of authors in some disciplines (Le Goues et al, 2018). This shielding of author identity is intended to eliminate or reduce many types of unconscious bias on the part of reviewers. 

“Transparent” or “open” peer review has also been introduced as a way to make all parties more accountable for the publishing process and to eliminate potential reviewer bias which can be protected behind a shield of anonymity. Author and/or reviewer names and identities are disclosed to each other, and/or the reviews themselves may be published alongside the accepted, published article, with or without the identities of the reviewers revealed. Many publishers are experimenting with one of 22 identified configurations of open peer review (Ross-Hellauer, 2017). Data from both Peer J’s and Elsevier’s open peer review implementations suggest that while the value of publishing the peer review reports is recognized by authors and reviewers, the majority of reviewers still prefer to remain anonymous in those published reports (PeerJ, 2018 and Bravo, 2019) . 

An alternative to publicly transparent peer review is “collaborative” or “community” peer review. In this model, authors and reviewers are introduced to each other and interact to discuss the work that is being reviewed, working together before publication. This model comes out of teaching and mentoring efforts to demystify the process and improve research writing, as well as the work of scholars whose research involves and impacts broader communities (Liboiron & Schoot 2018) and who, therefore, have developed mechanisms for community feedback. Open community review is not new to fields such as economics, math, and computer science, where there has been a longstanding culture of sharing preprints and inviting community feedback.

Works cited

Editorial boards 

A 2020 New York Times article revealed that, at the time of publication, “[c]lose to 90 percent of the members of the Royal Society’s editorial boards were white. Among editors employed in the United States by PLoS, 74 percent were white; none identified as Black. Roughly 80 percent of A.A.A.S. leadership, editors and advisers were white” (Wu, 2020). Editors influence what is published and can bring their own conscious and unconscious bias to such decision-making. Broader representation on editorial boards is critical not only for expanding opportunities for underrepresented scholars, but also for ensuring the comprehensiveness of the scholarship itself.

Mirroring and creating inequity

As one clinical researcher explains, a lack of diversity in editorial boards “may cause inequities in the type of research and viewpoints that are published and who gets published [which]…has consequences for the scientists submitting to these journals, and farther reaching implications for policy, patient care, and scientific progress, at large” (Akst, 2021).  

A recent analysis of leading emergency medicine journals suggests that lack of representation on editorial boards correlates with differential prestige and professional standing: “Across all journals included, women physicians on editorial boards were the vast minority, and were far less likely to hold the title of dean or full professor, or prominent departmental positions such as chair. Male editorial board members possessed higher h-indices, total citations, and more publishing years than their female counterparts” (Hutchinson et. al., 2021). Another study suggests that, within the social sciences, the lack of representation on editorial boards is emblematic of broader professional inequities: “[E]vidence from the field of political science suggests that women faculty members were more likely to perform internal service roles (for example, departmental committee work), while men were more likely to perform higher-status external service roles, such as editing” (Palser Lazerwitz, & Fotopoulou., 2022).

Incomplete demographic data

Studies of diversity in editorial boards have been significantly limited by the incomplete demographic data available for journal board members. Researchers who work in this area have largely relied on publicly available data, computational analysis, social media, and surveys to assess the racial, gender, and geographical diversity of editorial boards and their impact on publishing patterns, peer review, promotion, and tenure. 

Despite these complications, the data that scholars have amassed and assessed has provided ample evidence for how disparities in racial, gender, and geographic representation on editorial boards perpetuates inequities for scholars from historically marginalized groups.

The need for demographic data

Works cited

What can I do?

Peer reviewers and editors play a significant role in determining the research that is published,  valued, and built upon within their fields. 

Reviewers often function as gatekeepers within a profession, with the power to determine what does or does not get published based on their evaluation of the quality/relevance of the research. By understanding what biases might be present in the review of others’ work, and then taking steps to practice more inclusive peer review, peer reviewers have the opportunity to create more inclusive communities of scholars and more comprehensive scholarship within their fields. 

Editors influence what is published and can bring their own conscious and unconscious bias to such decision-making. Broader representation on editorial boards is critical not only for expanding opportunities for underrepresented scholars, but also for ensuring the comprehensiveness of the scholarship itself.

Effect change as a peer reviewer or member of an editorial board with the following suggested actions:

  • Learn about unconscious (or implicit) bias and consider how it could influence your peer review and editorial activities
  • Embed training and mentoring in the peer review process in order to educate peer reviewers while not creating an undue burden on their time and work 
  • Solicit a broad range of reviewers in order to diversify the reviewer pool and ensure that a small group of people are not carrying the majority of the work
  • Assess and document the demographics of peer reviewers to understand how they correlate to the demographics of accepted/rejected publications

Resources for avoiding bias in peer review

Resources for diversifying editorial boards and their publications

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Page updated: May 12, 2023