Few would deny that women are underrepresented in science; however, while some blame publishing practices others believe working conditions are the problem. Editors’ Update talks to two ecologists about the peer-review process and its effect on women’s careers.
Investigating bias in publishing
“Given the changing landscape of scientific publishing, we want to investigate bias in the publication process,” says Dr. Amber Budden of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California. Budden is a member of Ecobias, a working group supported by NCEAS that explores bias in ecology and evolution.
Ecobias thought the journal Behavioural Ecology (BE) would be a good model for investigation. “As a behavioral ecologist, I was familiar with BE and its switch to double-blind peer review in 2001. We wanted to see whether there were demographic differences before and after the introduction of double-blind peer review. We compared our results with an out-group of similar journals with single-blind peer review,” Budden explains.
Using a simple chi-square analysis, Budden et al found a significant increase in female first-authors published in BE after the journal introduced double-blind peer review. In the journals using single-blind peer review, only one showed a significant increase in female first-authored papers over the same period. Budden and her colleagues recently published their results in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
Much discussion and support
The findings have initiated a great deal of discussion, and female scientists in particular feel it is time for a change. While Budden does not believe that this single study provides definitive evidence of gender bias, she feels that double-blind is a more objective method of peer review that merits further investigation.
peer review [is] one of the many factors that could influence the representation of women in science.-Amber Budden
“I appreciate that there are limitations in terms of implementing it at journals,” she says. “I also understand that in some disciplines, the author’s identity can still be determined, but that shouldn’t prevent us from testing this model and exploring the implementation of double-blind peer review.”
Despite community support and some indications that it would be worthwhile, journals are reluctant to adopt double-blind peer review. The transition would be costly and there is no strong evidence that the single-blind peer-review system is flawed.
“That may well be true,” says Budden. “Journals have access to data that may defend single-blind peer review.” She believes that journals should publish the data to reassure the community that the current system is appropriate, objective and unbiased.
Encouraging other initiatives
Budden’s critics have suggested that rather than focusing on peer review, resources could be better invested in programs that promote female equality in science. These include Women into Science Engineering and Construction and the Royal Society’s Athena SWAN Charter.
However, Budden does not believe that a choice has to be made. “Resources are not so scarce that they can’t be spread across multiple initiatives,” she says. “We can pursue alternative peer-review models while encouraging other proactive activities.”
Budden feels fortunate to be working in the ecology field, where “women are represented in a much more balanced way than in other life sciences.” She continues, “Ecobias isn’t trying to fix a major problem, but improve the current situation.” Part of that will involve better employment conditions for working mothers. Budden says, “to ensure that both men and women can balance their personal lives with an academic career, certain aspects of academia need to support young families.”
In any case, Budden is happy that this study has inspired discussion about current review models and possible alternatives. “I’m not suggesting that peer review is going to solve all our problems,” she says. “It’s one of many factors that could influence the representation of women in science.”
Down a (double) blind alley
Dr. Tom Webb of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield agrees that women are under-represented in the ecology and evolution field. “Particularly when you get past the early career stage into medium-level and senior positions,” he says. So he was particularly interested in the Budden et al study. “I read it carefully, but was suspicious about the strength of their conclusions, given the apparent shortcomings in the data.”
Together with Prof. Robert Freckleton, Senior Editor at the Journal of Applied Ecology, and Bob O’Hara of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Helsinki, Webb looked at the findings in more detail.
“When we reanalyzed the data, we found no evidence that double-blind peer review benefits female authors,” says Webb. He acknowledges that there has been an increase in female authorship at BE but he was interested in whether this was exceptional compared with other journals.
“We used a single analysis to see what the broad trend was,” he explains. They found an increasing level of female authorship at all six journals examined by Budden and her team. “We couldn’t find any evidence that the increase at BE was more pronounced.”
Webb also looked at the number of female authors published in BE since its first publication in 1990. “There had been a proportional increase in female authors since 1990. It had been going on for 10 years before double-blind peer review was introduced, and there has been no significant increase since.” The difference hinges on which analysis technique is used. Webb and his colleagues feel their approach addresses the question more directly.
Analyzing peer review
Peer review is currently a hot topic and Webb is concerned about the attention Budden et al’s study has received. “The conclusions have been picked up by some influential institutions, and my concern is that the conclusions are not supported by the data.”
On the positive side, journals are starting to examine the peer-review issue more closely. Webb: “They are doing this kind of analysis in-house and none of the results I have seen show that female authors are more likely to be rejected.” He also points out that most papers have multiple authors of both sexes, making it difficult to reject them based on gender.
In an article responding to Webb’s counter argument, Budden et al suggest that female authors could be more attracted to journals with a double-blind peer-review policy. “It sounds plausible,” Webb admits, “but I don’t think there’s any evidence for it.” He says some journals have offered a double-blind peer-review option, only to abandon it after lack of uptake.
None of the results I have seen show that female authors are more likely to be rejected. -Thomas Webb
He also cites an example from Budden et al’s own study. “Despite using single-blind peer review, Animal Behaviour has a higher proportion of female authors than BE. That wouldn’t be the case if women were preferentially submitting to double-blind journals.”
Rectifying gender imbalance
Webb has been interested in the gender imbalance in ecology for some time. In 2007, he and Dr. Alison Holt of the Environment Department, University of York, wrote a feature on the subject for the Bulletin of the British Ecological Society (BES).
“We used a questionnaire to measure BES members’ opinions,” he explains. “We received all kind of feedback, but we didn’t get any complaints about the peer-review system.” The feature cited childcare and unintentional bias as the main obstacles for women pursuing a career in science.
Webb feels that flexible working patterns would be more beneficial. “Women still take on more childcare responsibilities than men, and their career break during maternity is longer,” he says. “The current system makes it quite difficult to restart your career after taking time off,” he says.
He adds that groups such as Women into Science Engineering and Construction and Athena SWAN can raise the issue. “Universities are far behind other professions when it comes to gender equality,” he says. “We would all benefit from making science more attractive for both genders.”
While everyone agrees that there is a gender bias, opinions remain divided on the causes of the imbalance in science and the solutions needed to redress it. But the positive result of this debate is that people are now discussing the issue constructively. In the long run, this can only benefit female scientists and science as a whole.
To cite this article, please use: Francis Cox, "Redressing the gender imbalance", Elsevier Editors' Update, Issue 23, August 2008
Blogs: Deep Thoughts and Silliness
Fame, Journals, and Blinding
Gender Differences: Need More Data!
Summary of an international study of Peer Review in Scholarly Journals (.pdf)
Budden, A.E. et al (2008), “Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Jan, 23(1), pp. 4–6.
Budden, A.E. et al (2008), “Response to Webb et al: Double-blind review: accept with minor revisions”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Jul, 23(7), pp. 353–54.
Webb, T.J. et al (2008), “Does double-blind review benefit female authors?”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Jul, 23(7), 351–53.
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