Publishing Trends

The importance of a gender-balanced editorial team

Narrowing the gender gap begins with all of us

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Gender balanceLast year I attended an international meeting where we hosted a special reception for the editorial board of one of our key journals. As I greeted and mingled with editors and board members, something very quickly dawned on me. In a room of almost 80 people, all of them were men. Except for me. I am no stranger to being in scientific meetings where women are sometimes underrepresented, but still, this was the first time I’d been quite so outnumbered. I raised it as an observation with a few people at the reception, but it was only when I pointed it out that people seemed to notice that the balance was very definitely…unbalanced.

Initial investigations

So I started to wonder how representative this was across all of the titles in this particular programme. Energy is an area that – on the surface at least – seemed to attract as many women as men into research, certainly judging by the number of participants at the conference. It didn’t take long before I discovered that we had only 6% editors-in-chief who were women, yet contributions from women authors globally made up around 30% of submissions to those journals – or so we believe. It is a number that is difficult to track as many women still use initials for fear of bias. Either way, it was certainly clear to me that our journal editorial teams, as a whole, did not seem to be truly reflective of the community that supported them.  Likewise, I investigated the Earth portfolio and although the number of female Editors was higher - at 11% - it was still lower than the composition of the research community it represents.

I’m not suggesting that we should all strive to bring together editorial boards that are direct mirror images of the male - female author ratios who write the articles. I do think however that we can all play a small role in closing this noticeable gap.

The first step in changing something like this on a global stage is to create awareness of the matter in the first place. That is the main purpose of this article.

The right candidate versus the right gender

Avoiding the “J.K. Rowling Syndrome”

I recently recruited a new publisher to the team from the academic world. She freely admitted that she preferred using initials instead of her first name when submitting her work for publishing. There was clearly a concern that her name would go against her in either getting published in the first place or post publication when people came to read her work.

We could almost call this the “J.K. Rowling Syndrome” after one of the worlds’ best-selling authors of fiction was advised not to use her first name when publishing her Harry Potter series of books. Her publishers feared that the target audience (young boys) would not read a book by a woman.

Is this also happening in scientific publishing? Are some women afraid of using their first name for fear of prejudice in the peer review system or indeed, after the paper is published? Feel free to comment below…

So why does this matter? Does having a more gender-balanced and diverse editorial team actually add any value to a journal’s development? Well, yes, I think it does. Several studies document unconscious bias towards women in science. Many of these show that the publication record has a bias against women in terms of papers published and citations generated. Also some female scientists have come forward to say that they increasingly look at the balance of the composition of an editorial team when deciding where to submit their best work, so that they feel less at risk of bias. Whether that bias is real or imagined, it is increasingly important. Scientists should feel that their work will be treated fairly. The editorial board - the human face of the journal - conveys that sense of balance and fairness.

Naturally, it’s vital that the right candidate joins an editorial board based on his or her experience, background and knowledge. It is also true that some communities have a bigger pool of people (men and women) from which to choose the right candidates.

But I wonder why there are so few women on our boards? Is it because the role of an editor doesn’t seem attractive? Are women more reluctant to join because of a lack of understanding on what the editorial role is? Is it our messaging? Or is it simply because we are not asking them?

Perhaps we need to do more from within Elsevier of communicating the role and responsibilities in a clearer way, and I’m certainly encouraging this within my own team. And if we’re just not asking women to join, then that is something too I’d like to discourage.  Let’s try to do away with all-male shortlists.

As we reach the end of this article I wanted to share something that I recently came across on YouTube. It was a video prepared by the UK’s Royal Society on unconscious bias. At the end, they list 4 recommendations for their panel members to consider:

  • Deliberately slow down decision-making
  • Reconsider reasons for decisions
  • Question cultural stereotypes
  • Monitor each other for unconscious bias

I’m now hoping to encourage editors - both men and women - to think about these points when appointing editorial team members, approaching reviewers, and creating journal award committees. Think about the community that your journal serves; think about roadblocks facing your authors at their institutions, in their home countries, in their research. Make your journal a home where they know their work will be treated fairly, without prejudice or bias, and where they will want to return.

Of course we should continue to look for the right people for the positions available but be a little bit more aware of the gender gap. If an opportunity arises where we can do something to help narrow this gap within STM publishing, it is our duty to do so.


Author biography

Deborah LoganDeborah Logan is Publishing Director for Elsevier’s Energy & Earth Science Journals’ programme, which is the largest publishing programme in the energy and earth sciences, and which includes many flagship titles and world-class editors. As well as overseeing this journal programme of 104 titles, Deborah is also spearheading initiatives within Elsevier on our Asia focus, and improving the gender and regional balance of editors and reviewers across many of our titles.

Deborah has been working with Elsevier at their offices in Oxford, UK, since 2005. Before then, she worked at Oxford University Press and at Oxfam Publishing in UK; at a non-governmental agency in Kenya; and with the Japanese Ministry of Education and at Sony in Japan.

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