Racial inequalities in journals
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01.06.2023 •

Racial inequalities in journals highlighted in giant study


The research reveals that scientists from minority ethnic groups are significantly underrepresented on editorial boards compared to their authorship of papers, and that they often experience longer waiting periods between the submission of a paper and its acceptance for publication. In the United States, Black scholars face the longest delays, and papers written by teams with a majority of Black or Hispanic scientists are cited less frequently than those written by white researchers. This indicates that the academic-publishing process is inequitable and implies that journals should prioritize diversifying their editorial boards in order to better reflect the diversity of the scientific community.

One study, which examined 81,000 editors across 15 disciplines, found that women accounted for 14% of editors and 8% of editors-in-chief. And a survey of 368 editors across 25 medical and science journals revealed that more than 75% are white.

What’s in a name?

Bedoor AlShebli, a computational social scientist at New York University Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and her colleagues studied the inequities facing scholars from minority ethnic groups. They amassed publication and citation information for more than one million papers published in more than 500 journals between 2001 and 2020 from six publishers: Frontiers, Hindawi, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, PLOS and the National Academy of Sciences. Utilizing an algorithm to infer people's race or ethnicity, the authors examined three metrics - editorial-board composition, review time and number of citations - and identified 13 nations in Asia, Africa and South America that were under-represented on editorial boards. They found that, of the 20 countries with the longest paper-acceptance delays, 19 were from these regions. In the United States, the study revealed that Black authors have faced longer delays over the past two decades.

The researchers then used a metric called citation lensing, which tracks the textual similarity of publications, and discovered that scientists in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean are, globally, cited significantly less often than expected across all disciplines, while those in North America and Oceania are referenced more. When looking at only the United States, they determined that papers from teams in which most authors are Black or Hispanic are not cited as often as those in which most authors are white, even when the content is very similar. 

Although two independent analyses produced the same results, Jeffrey Lockhart, who studies the sociology of knowledge and science at the University of Chicago in Illinois, raised the issue of the accuracy of the algorithms used to infer demographic information. Lockhart noted that, in the United States, name-based algorithms misclassify Black names roughly 65% of the time and suggested that the results may be better framed as measuring discrimination against names that seem unfamiliar to reviewers. He believes this could open the door to further interesting and intriguing studies. 

Mechanisms of discrimination

AlShebli's research has revealed disparities in citation bias, leading her to the conclusion that these disparities are likely caused by larger societal issues. She believes the underrepresentation of minority ethnic groups on editorial boards might be a contributing factor, as well as the hesitancy of researchers to accept requests to review papers from editors with foreign affiliations. To address this issue, AlShebli recommends not only inviting more members of minority ethnic groups onto boards, but also implementing policies to support and retain them. 

Edmond Sanganyado, an environmental toxicologist at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, experienced the reality of academic publishing firsthand and decided to join editorial boards to help advise reviewers to focus on the quality of the science. However, Sanganyado discovered that he was often struggling to solicit reviewers, needing to contact up to 40 people at a time, as opposed to his colleagues who could manage with just a dozen emails. This suspicion of discrimination due to his name led him to resign from several boards. 

Cristina Dorador, a microbial ecologist at the University of Antofagasta in Chile, has seen similar struggles when trying to publish their discoveries in high-impact journals. She notes that Latin American scientists feel out of the conversation and are often met with barriers when attempting to collaborate with colleagues in North America. Dorador believes that the visions and ideas of the Southern Hemisphere must be included in the conversation in order to truly progress. 

Holding publishers to a higher standard

In AlShebli's study, only papers published until the end of 2020 were examined. In response to the lack of diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, numerous publishers, universities, and professional organizations have since implemented changes. At present, more than 50 academic publishers, encompassing over 15,000 journals, have promised to monitor the gender, race, and ethnicity of their authors. 

After researchers pointed out gender and regional biases in Nature's 2021 news coverage, the news team began tracking the gender, geographical location, and career stage of all of their sources. The team reported in February that the proportion of articles citing male sources decreased from 69% in 2020 to 55% since April 2021. Nature also took steps to address racism in published research with their first guest-edited special issue and an acknowledgement of the publication's role in perpetuating harmful science. 

To further reduce biases in scientific publishing, many publishers, such as Frontiers in Lausanne, Switzerland, have implemented flexible payment models for authors in low- and middle-income countries. Frederick Fenter, the chief executive of Frontiers, notes that each editorial board is regularly audited to ensure gender and geographical balance. In 2022, 44% of articles from South America and 38% from African nations received partial or full fee support. 

May Berenbaum, editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asserted that the journal is devoted to increasing DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) in science publishing. To this end, it recruits reviewers from a range of backgrounds and provides them all with training in unconscious bias upon onboarding.

 Meanwhile, other publishers have been concentrating on launching new open-science publications that can be more equitable. Madhukar Pai, one of two editors-in-chief at PLoS Global Public Health, stated that when the journal launched in 2021, they had a clear understanding of the flaws in the global-health journal landscape and deliberately set out to do things differently, including building diversity into all stages of the publication process. Suzanne Farley, PLOS's editorial director, has confirmed that the publisher is now gathering demographic information from its authors and will be surveying its over 10,000 editorial-board members. Pai commented, "Everything we have done, we have done intentionally to ensure our editorial boards are diverse and inclusive and that we are providing a platform for authors who are usually excluded."