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Healthy habits: working towards inclusive Editorial Boards

August 25, 2020

By Esther de Jongh, Annette Leeuwendal

Healthy habits: working towards inclusive Editorial Boards

© Dolmatov

Lessons from women editors

Despite an increasing recognition of the importance of diversity in terms of both geography, ethnicity and gender in academic publishing, the participation of women in lead editor positions varies widely, as does the incidence of women authorship, and overall numbers have only shown a very gradual improvement over the last decade.

In recent years, Elsevier and other actors have started to quantify the number of women in academia leading or publishing in academic journals, as this community is increasingly committed to achieving parity. What’s more, under the leadership of the Royal Society of Chemistry, many larger publishing houses have recently started working together to sign up to a joint statement for action in inclusion and diversity in science publishing.opens in new tab/window

Looking at the family of Elsevier’s journals, women leadership roles make up for 25% of available Editor-in-Chief roles, which clearly presents an opportunity for further discussion and improvement.

Although quantitative data is needed to measure progress, qualitative data often helps make better sense of the numbers. Elsevier has been keen to investigate further before introducing diversity plans for its journals, and therefore initiated a qualitative study involving in-depth interviews with nine women Editors-in-Chief. The goal was to learn about the drivers and obstacles successful women researchers face while progressing in their careers. Combined with interviews with eight Elsevier publishers, the study aimed to produce actionable findings that could contribute to diversifying journal boards, and aid individual researchers in their own professional growth. In this article we will highlight our findings and suggestions for how to make the best use of these data.

Resilience & ambition

The Editors-in-Chief we interviewed are all ambitious researchers with a vision for their field. Almost all agreed that their womanhood meant they needed to show more resilience than men in pursuing an academic career. Many of their children were born during their dissertations, and others had competed for tenure positions while raising their children.

Experiences of being dismissed or not taken seriously were not uncommon – some were even warned early on in their career that they would need to work twice as hard as their male colleagues. It became evident that their hard work and aspiration to improve “their” journal, led them forward. The position of Editor-in-Chief represented the ultimate opportunity to shape the field, interact with colleagues, and create opportunities for young researchers.

Create habits

The combined insights from both publishers and Editors-in-Chief resulted in the following recommendations that could drive a more diverse journal board, as well as effecting professional growth among researchers. Establishing intentions and creating policies is easily done, however, whereas successfully introducing new habits is often the real challenge. Here are the recommended actions:

  • Inquire if your journal operates transition periods during which lead editors can be trained. This entails sharing a position as Co-Editor-in-Chief alongside your predecessor for a set period (for example six months to one year), allowing the transfer of knowledge and a smooth transition into the role.

  • Support editors or promising researchers affiliated with the journal. Many of the Editors-in-Chief received support from a mentor throughout their career.

  • Promote professional growth within the journal’s network, creating opportunities for ambitious researchers affiliated with the journal, rather than looking into fixed networks. An individual could start as a well-performing reviewer, and subsequently “graduate” into a member of the editorial team.

  • Create inclusive shortlists, that are gender-, racially- and geographically diverse. Even when a candidate isn’t chosen, someone’s name circulating on a shortlist could open up other useful career opportunities.

  • Ensure diversifying the editorial team is an ongoing conversation between editors and the journal manager or publisher, rather than a topic that is only addressed once a year. Habits are created by repetition and cultivating constant awareness of a shared goal.

  • Draft and publish an inclusion statement (example), as a useful point of reference for authors, potential candidates, and existing editors. Components for an appropriate inclusion statement refer to the editorial team, the authors, and the content being published.

  • Commission a special issue promoting gender equality or diversity in general and seek guest editors outside of the journal’s regular network. Besides paying attention to important topics in the field, editing a special issue can be a great opportunity for an editor to grow professionally.

“I’m not ‘Mrs. Putnam.’ I’m Amelia Earhart.”

We want to thank the Editors-in-Chief for their time and enthusiasm for participating in this investigation. Without their openness and honesty this report would not have been possible. We received a good deal of support and have profited from previous writings on the subject such as thisopens in new tab/window one from the New York Times, displaying a letter from Amelia Earhart to a NYT publisher asking him to refer to her by her own name. Although written in 1932, it touches upon a topic that could prove interesting for further research.

In many academic couples, fixed tenure positions or the degree of mobility for one often restrict the possibilities for the other. Looking into mobility patterns among academic researchers would be an interesting next step. In the meantime, we hope that the explanation and recommendations from this study have been illuminating and will serve as a useful resource for creating more diversity in your own journal.


Esther de Jongh


Esther de Jongh

Annette Leeuwendal


Annette Leeuwendal