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The case for (more) diversity in peer review

Exploring the history, importance and benefits of being inclusive

September 20, 2021

By Katie Eve

Exploring the history, importance and benefits of being inclusive

© honor of Peer Review Week, 2021, which has the theme: identity in peer review, we offer a series of articles across our Editors’ and Reviewers’ Update channels, focusing on recommendations, tips and tricks on improving the diversity of the peer review process. We hope you enjoy and find the articles useful; do let us know via the comments if you have any questions or feedback.

A brief history of inclusion & diversity in publishing

Historically, international journals originated from Europe and, later, North America and were naturally edited by researchers from the same regions. As a result, for decades, journals’ author and reviewer bases were drawn from the same country or region (often being part of the editor’s broader network). However, with the globalization of academic activity and the adoption of online journal editorial systems, most journals now receive submissions from around the world. While this has helped towards diversifying the author network, much work remains to be done to diversify journal editor and peer reviewer pools.

Why does diversity in peer review matter?

It is no longer acceptable to dismiss lack of diversity in peer review as a “pipeline problem”: by not engaging women and marginalized groups in peer review, journals perpetuate a vicious cycle that disadvantages these groups and robs them of academic advancement. Journals therefore have a real opportunity to drive positive change and progress.

Being invited as a peer reviewer is an indication to an individual (and their institution) that they are considered a respected member of their community whose opinion is worthy and important. Furthermore, reviewing for a journal often leads to other forms of engagement, such as being invited to serve on an Editorial Board or as an editor. Peer review is thus a key component in the academic system and a researcher’s involvement in peer review has important implications for their career progression.

For science and society more broadly, ensuring peer review by individuals with diverse backgrounds protects against gaps, biases and blind spots, minimizes confirmation bias, promotes innovation and development, and ultimately leads to greater scientific rigor and research that is more inclusive.

Inclusion & diversity (I&D) also means ensuring that papers are not reviewed exclusively by experts from the same ‘school of thought’. As explained in the World Association of Medical Editors policy: Conflict of Interest in Peer-Reviewed Medical Journals(opens in new tab/window), “Participants… may have strong beliefs (“intellectual passion”) that commit them to a particular explanation, method, or idea.  They may, as a result, be biased … in reviewing the work of others that is in favor or at odds with their beliefs.” It is imperative that we seek reviews from a variety of voices to avoid the risk of working inside an echo chamber.

To safeguard equity in research and ensure trusted and high-quality scientific output, from which all members of global society can benefit, equal access to the opportunity to review is of crucial importance.

I&D is therefore something editors need to consider in order to do what is right and to play their part in driving human and scientific progress. But it benefits journals, and the articles they publish, too. First, with the globalization of research, it is perfectly possible that the best placed reviewer is someone who also happens to have diverse identity attributes. Second, by growing and diversifying a journal’s referee pool, the reviewing workload is better distributed. As a result, reviewers may become more willing to accept invitations to review, and may deliver faster and more thorough reviews which translate to better quality publications. Indeed, Publons’ Global state of peer review(opens in new tab/window) 2018 report stated that researchers from the Global South did not receive as many requests to review as their counterparts in the Global North but were more likely to accept requests and complete their reviews faster.

It’s clear, then, that publishers, journals, editors, and the research community need to take action to actively increase I&D in peer review for the benefits of individuals, science and society. This is something which we will look at in more detail across several forthcoming articles.