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Perspectives on gender diversity in peer review – interview with Gemma Derrick, PLOS ONE Section Editor

We are celebrating Peer Review Week, which this year has the theme ‘Diversity and Inclusion’. We asked PLOS ONE Section Editor Gemma Derrick for her perspective on diversity in peer review and the challenges around gender imbalance in the review process.


Gemma is Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Evaluation at Lancaster University and Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at Lancaster University. She carries out research on science and innovation policy, including the healthcare system, the culture of academic knowledge production, peer review and the evaluation of research excellence and impact. Gemma is involved in research on the role of gender and work-life balance in research productivity and reward systems of research. Gemma is a Section Editor for PLOS ONE having joined our board in 2011.


Here is what Gemma told us!


Why is diversity important to the peer review process?

There is great faith in the peer review system within academia.  Authors trust the system to guide them in the development and communication of their ideas through structured feedback and the idea that by including a diverse range of perspectives, the peer review process will inevitably make their manuscript stronger. Ensuring diversity in this system is vital to reducing the level of doubt the authors have in the contribution of the paper, and the doubt we have as Editors in publishing the manuscript.

Generally, when I start the peer review process, I start from the position that I really want this paper to be published. I am on the author(s) side and I see the peer review process as a process similar to how lecturers provide feedback to students who then implement this feedback. This type of process is so that authors gain the insights of objective, international academics as peers rather than their friends or work colleagues. In this way, the peer review process primarily, is to ensure that the paper is as strong as it can be prior to publication and it is in our best interests as Editors to ensure this.

In this sense, for authors to get objective advice on how to strengthen the paper from a variety of sources and different perspectives through greater diversity of views is part of the advantages of the peer review process.  If the process is not sufficiently diverse (gender, nationalities, methodological views, and culturally diverse perspectives) and/or is restricted to a limited amount of perspectives, this can lead to less than ideal papers being published and later withdrawn or retracted or else being rejected on based on superficial reviewing.


Reports have shown that there is an underrepresentation of women in the peer review process and on journal editorial boards, why do you think this is?

Time.  There are sometimes not enough hours in the day.

Working as an Editor is something I do because I believe in the necessity to contribute to the production (and publication) of new knowledge.  However important I believe this process to be, it is not something that is recognised as a formal part of my work contract which is, as with most academics, split between research, teaching and administration.

It also can take up a lot of time, and not everyone has this extra time or is capable of giving it due to other non-work commitments. Unfortunately, women still take on the majority of childcare and/or household management responsibilities. Currently, I am involved in a study that is looking at styles of parenting in academia. In this study, we have found that even if the couple describe themselves as “share-parenting” that this is not the case and women still take on the lion’s share of parenting responsibilities, taking time away from engaging in non-formal academic tasks such as reviewing and editing for journals. Therefore, taking on extra responsibilities for work that is not financially rewarded and is poorly recognised professionally is an unreachable task for many women.


What are the implications of this gender imbalance?

An imbalance in gender representation in editorial boards can result in a disconnect between expectations in terms of review deadlines and the pressures of everyday life that most women in academia face.

At PLOS ONE, we endeavour to provide a fast and efficient peer review process. At the same time, as Editors we realise that reviewers have lives and that in many situations are not formally acknowledged for completing reviews.  So sometimes when our desire for an efficient peer review process clashes with the demands of life, family and an already very stretched academic workforce, we need to be patient. In addition, we keep in our minds that having non-academic life responsibilities does not diminish a person’s expertise nor the value that their contribution makes towards making a publishable paper stronger. In fact, we need to establish a dialogue between ourselves, the authors and the reviewers to negotiate expectations about balancing time, work and non-academic demands. After all, we could all gain something from being a little more patient and, in the end, by providing our reviewers with sufficient space to reflect on a paper and identify how it can be made stronger, everyone benefits – the authors, the journal and the reviewers.


You are a Section Editor for PLOS ONE, in your role as editor, do you consider gender balance when handling the review process? If so, can you tell us about any steps you take?

Try to involve women as reviewers as much as possible and recognise that their expertise is not diminished by them needing an extra couple of days to complete a review. This will ensure that the manuscript under review benefits from the insights of the very best experts, regardless of their gender.

Otherwise there is the issue of more implicit bias in a review received, and here an Editor will need to utilise their critical thinking skills in order to identify it when it happens, or else minimise its effect. Specifically, it pays to keep an active and critical eye open for clashes of opinion that go beyond the objectives of the manuscript, or beyond the responsibility of the reviewer to critique the research within the paper, and not target the reviewer specifically. PLOS ONE does not operate double-blind reviewing and so, as Editors we need to work extra hard to minimise or negate any whiff of bias. This refers to the author’s (or reviewer’s) gender, age, nationality and/or ethnic origin that can be made obvious through an author’s name, of which the reviewer is aware of within the peer review system operationalised by PLOS ONE.  These do not necessarily take the form of direct reference to a bias against author characteristics but may be hidden in how reviewers assess the merit of the manuscript. An example is comments in the reviews such as “If I did this, I would have done it differently…”. Such comments neglect to objectively review what the author’s main intention was in the manuscript, and instead attempt to elicit a level of control or else, reflect a level of insecurity that goes beyond a reviewer’s objective of critiquing the research in the manuscript in front of them. Unfortunately, it is more common than one thinks and in these situations, it is the Editor’s responsibility to read past these comments, and make a decision whether to elicit other reviews, or else make a recommendation based on the paper’s merits, rather than the reviewers’ ambitions or potential biases.

Conversely, an Editor should also pay attention to how authors respond to reviewer comments as well.  A lot of research and discussion around bias in peer review concentrates on the reviewers’ biases towards authors, but the converse is also possible, and its existence threatens the integrity of the peer review system as much as the former. There is a balance to be struck between defending the work and withstanding constructive scrutiny. Again, it is my responsibility as an Editor to identify.


Explore our Collection ‘Understanding the Gender Imbalance in STEM Fields’ for research on the gender imbalance in career paths, academic evaluation and representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

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