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Approaches to increasing “gatekeeper” diversity in peer review – interview with Cassidy Sugimoto, PLOS ONE Academic Editor

The ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ theme of Peer Review Week this year invites us to consider some concrete approaches to reducing gender and other forms of bias in the peer-review process. We asked PLOS ONE Academic Editor, Cassidy Sugimoto, to share her ideas about actions that peer reviewers and journals could take to increase the diversity of gatekeepers in scientific communication.

Cassidy Sugimoto is Associate Professor of Informatics at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research lies within the domain of scholarly communication and scientometrics, examining the formal and informal ways in which scholarly research is disseminated. Cassidy is an Academic Editor for PLOS ONE.


Why is diversity important to the peer review process?


Peer review is the cornerstone of academic publishing and one of the chief mechanisms for ensuring the validity of science. However, given our current reward structure in science and highly stratified journal system, peer review can also determine whose voice is heard in science. Those who are accepted into elite journals often gain more visibility and prestige; these rewards translate into future success, determining who stays and continues to be productive in science. A lack of diversity, particularly among elite journals, can have severe consequences on the scientific system. Our recent research suggests that diversity in gatekeeping may improve equity in the peer review process. Without this, gatekeepers and authors may simply replicate themselves, reducing diversity in science. This is not simply a matter of social justice. A greater diversity in science is good for science: expanding the questions that are asked and improving our knowledge base. Therefore, is it critical that we attend to diversity in the gatekeeping process.


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?


One must first acknowledge the supply side problem: there are simply fewer women in senior levels in science than men. However, this does not fully account for the underrepresentation nor does it account for the fact that although women are often underrepresented in prestigious roles (e.g., editorial boards), carrying a higher reviewing burden than men . Of course, these are both a factor of other types of disparities in science: women tend to be less productive and less cited than men and less likely to appear in dominant author positions. These are all interrelated phenomena, suggesting that tackling diversity issues in scholarly communication require analysing both the cultural and educational systems that contribute to these disparities.


You are an Academic 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?


Yes, I consider many forms of diversity when selecting reviewers. I believe that epistemological diversity is important, particularly given the interdisciplinary nature of most of what I review. I check for fairness in gender and age composition: ensuring that there is representation among the reviewers, but trying not to overburden certain populations. I also consider elements such as institution and country. Science is a global, diverse, and interdisciplinary conversation. Scientific gatekeeping should reflect that.


Do you think reviewers should be explicitly encouraged to reduce conscious or unconscious biases, such as, gender or nationality bias? What would this look like?


There are several steps we could take to address this. Many have called for increased use of double-blind review, though it has been acknowledged that this does not work equally well across disciplines. We can provide training for reviewers or, at very least, a statement about implicit bias at the beginning of each review invitation. However, editors also have a responsibility to be trained in identifying bias in reviews. In the end, reviews are recommendations that are made to editors—the editors therefore have the largest obligation to ensure fairness presides in peer review.


However, we also need to turn the tools of science upon the problem. Peer review data is largely closed and although publishers report data internally, these are rarely available to the public or for scientific analysis. In order to understand the peer review process, we must have better data sets for analyzing peer review. This will allow us to test, more globally, the effects of double-blind review and other mechanisms on reducing disparities in scholarly communication.


What can journals do to encourage further participation of women in the peer review process?


I would like to see journals commit to having at least one women reviewer on each paper. Journals should work together with female doctoral students and their advisors to provide experiences for the students to review in high quality journals, while receiving feedback and mentoring from their advisors on the process. Participating in peer review can lessen the anxiety that many new scholars face around scholarly publishing. Journals should seek out highly qualified women to serve in elite positions: such as on editorial boards and as editors. In short, journals should seek to intentionally include women in all stages of scientific publishing.


In most industrialized countries women make up over 50% of university students but are underrepresented in STEM careers. What are your views on potential approaches to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers?


Representation is important. We know from several studies that women are more likely to pursue STEM careers if they have observed other women in their community in these occupations. Representation is also important in the university: women need to see other women not only in front of the class, but also in the lab. They need to see women represented in the media as scientific experts and to find women in elite positions throughout science. However, there are deeper cultural and political roots to all of this, which are not restricted to the scientific realm. Labor roles, even in industrialized countries, are still highly gendered. As long as we continue to imagine and portray STEM as male, we will not be able to fully realize the talents of half of our population.


You can read more about Cassidy Sugimoto’s latest research here. Our Collection ‘Understanding the Gender Imbalance in STEM Fields’ showcases PLOS ONE and PLOS Biology articles exploring the gender imbalance in career paths, academic evaluation and representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.


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