OWhen it comes to deciding which scientific papers will be considered for publication in prestigious brain science journals, most callers are still men, and most live and work in the United States, according to a new study.
The book, published Monday, February 21 in Natural neuroscienceclosely examines the editorial boards of the world’s top 50 psychology and neuroscience journals as ranked by the Index of scientific citations developed. The study breaks down the diversity of each publication as represented by their board composition in terms of gender and geographic location. The study found that only 20% of top psychology journals and 10% of top neuroscience journals have more women than men on their editorial boards. These figures differ radically from field demographics – a 2020 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that 71% of psychology graduate students were women, and an article in the Neuroscience Research Journal the same year identified roughly a 50-50 split between men and women in neuroscience.
The phenomenon seems to extend beyond psychology and neuroscience. The American Chemical Society (ACS) has published its first ever diversity internal audit earlier this month, in which he found that in many ACS journals, there are more than twice as many men who are editors, reviewers and published authors as women.
The scientist spoke with University of California San Francisco neuroscientist Eleanor Palser, the lead author of the Natural neuroscience paper, who says she hopes her study, which began as a pandemic quarantine project, will serve as a call to action and spur social progress in academia.
The scientist: You are a neuroscientist who generally studies dyslexia as well as autism spectrum disorders and related disorders. What initially prompted you to investigate and publish this breakdown of journal editor demographics?
Eleanor Palser: My work focuses on a very different subject: child development, dyslexia and autism mainly. But I am a female scientist and to publish my work, I have to interact with journal editors. It’s not that I had any particular experience with editors that made me think, “Oh, I think there might be some bias here” in the makeup of editorial boards. But you notice, right? You notice that the editors are mostly male, mostly based in the United States. So we went in thinking that’s what we’d probably find. It was the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and I couldn’t go anywhere, so evenings and weekends, with my former thesis supervisor [Aikaterini Fotopoulou] at [University College London]I just sat down and we quantified this just to satisfy our curiosity, really.
TS: Your article has highlighted some rather interesting statistics. The top editor split in psychology journals is closer to a 50/50 split than in neuroscience, but still not great. Meanwhile, journals in both fields are dominated by Americans. Was it all that. . . particularly surprising to you, or was it what you expected?
PE: I think there is an interesting difference between psychology and neuroscience. And that’s in psychology, yes, they’re closer to 50/50. But of course, psychology is a more feminine discipline. And so if you look at the stats versus their representation in the wider field, whether it’s conference attendees or lead authors, it seems that in psychology you have even fewer editors based on their representation in the broader field compared to neuroscience, so there seems to be fewer women in neuroscience [journals] only men.
TS: So given the difference in the denominator, it’s not representative even though it’s closer to 50/50.
PE: Yes, there is a question of what we should be aiming for: should he be 50/50 or should he represent the field as a whole. And those are the two levels of diversity that I talk about in the document. This was in response to many critics saying, “Well, surely there aren’t any women available or people from outside the United States to serve on these boards.” And so we added [that analysis] at the review stage to find out a bit more.
TS: I was interested in the responses from editors that you included in your article. Some of these comments spoke of how female scientists are burdened with more career and family-related responsibilities than male scientists and are unable to accept positions. [on editorial boards] without spreading too much. . . . Do you think this is an accurate representation? And can you talk about navigating that culture?
PE: Hard to understand why, isn’t it? And I’m sure the why is different for different people and different newspapers. . . . I think it’s interesting that some of the journals that have full-time editors who are paid and that’s all they do—they’re not academics doing this on weekends—tend to have more parity than reviews where it’s just a sideways hustle. So I think there may be some truth in the resource aspect. If we employ editors and it’s their job, we don’t seem to struggle to hire women. It’s when we ask them to do this in addition to their daily lives. At least publishers tell me they’re having trouble recruiting.
I’m glad it resonates with people and people think it’s an important thing to talk about.
TS: It’s a pity that the availability to do, as you say, a parallel stampede is so linked to prestige in the field.
PE: Law. I think academia is very much about what you can do outside of work. And there are a lot of those secondary things that advance your career. But if you have family responsibilities, other things going on, it becomes difficult.
TS: You also identify in your article that research conducted by women and in labs run by women is neglected. This is straight from your paper: “… papers with female first and last authors in top neuroscience journals received 30% fewer citations.” intertwined? Or do you think these are separate and significantly different issues that need to be addressed?
PE: It would be really interesting to untangle. I think it’s a research question. What the document does not do is tell us what the impacts of this are on science.
To see “Women’s biomedical innovations less likely to be adopted: study”
TS: What has been the broader response to the work, not only from other journals but also from other scholars?
PE: You know, I would wake up at night and be like, ‘Oh, no, they’re going to hate this, I’ll never get a job. But it was fine. Everyone has been very supportive and interested in the work; there was media interest. I’m glad it resonates with people and people think it’s an important thing to talk about.
I hope [this] encourages [journal editors] do similar audits of their own staff and think about who makes those decisions and how that might inform the science that gets published.
TS: We haven’t touched too much on the geographical aspect. What prompted this two-pronged approach?
PE: The reason we’re focusing on the two areas and not other things like race, which we thought were really, really important to look at as well, is that we did it without contacting any of the editors themselves- same at this stage of data entry. We did not have the ethical clearance to contact them and ask them these questions about their identity. We were just pulling that off the web; it would have been horrible and messy to infer race based on what is available online. It’s usually not flagged in people’s bios, for example, and you can’t do it visually in a photo. We therefore focused on gender, which we identified as a common problem in the literature. And then I had also read compelling articles about geodiversity and how we should be looking at science globally, so we added that as well.
TS: What do you hope this study will accomplish? And what do you think would be a good tangible step towards progress?
PE: I think if editors could recognize that this is something that we can look into and that we are aware of and have expectations and goals for, hopefully that will encourage them to do similar audits on their own personal and to think about who makes those decisions and how that might inform the science that gets published. So I think that’s a bit of a call to action. I don’t know how convinced I am that publishers will start to re-evaluate, but I sure hope it’s something that gets into the dialogue.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity.