Gender Imbalance in the Editorial Activities of a Researcher-led Journal

Tal Seidel Malkinson, Devin B. Terhune, Mathew Kollamkulam, Maria J. Guerreiro, Dani S. Bassett, Tamar R. Makin

Posted on: 30 November 2021

Preprint posted on 10 November 2021

Why representation might not lead to inclusion: investigating the involvement of editors in the scientific publishing process

Selected by Helen Robertson


It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in many aspects of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). Disparities in gender representation are evident in senior research positions, in the awarding of grants and awards, and in public-facing roles, amongst others. Women are also under-represented as first and senior authors on research papers, particularly those published in journals with community prestige. Even the evaluation of women-led manuscripts is subject to gender biases, with scientific material supposedly written by men reviewed more positively by peers than those supposedly written by women.

Disparities in gender representation are also pervasive in editorial roles within science publishing. Given the influential role that editors play in science publishing, appointment to the editorial board of a journal is reflective of community support and high regard towards a researcher. Despite initiatives to increase the number of women on journal editorial boards, women remain underrepresented in these roles. Even when more women are appointed to editorial boards, there is little insight into how or if this results in more equal involvement of women in the editorial process.

In this preprint, the authors used data from the open-access biological and biomedical science journal eLife to investigate gender representation and participation as editors in the scientific manuscript peer-review and editorial process.

Study design

eLife has over 600 researchers in their Board of Reviewing Editors (BRE). These editors are involved in different ways in the two-stage evaluation process used by eLife, as described by the authors of the preprint. In the first stage, manuscripts are evaluated by a Senior Editor (SE), who seeks the advice of one or more REs to decide if the manuscript should proceed to peer review. At this stage, the role of the RE is internal to eLife, and their identity is not disclosed to the manuscript authors. During submission, authors may suggest appropriate REs for initial manuscript evaluation.

Should a manuscript proceed to full peer review, the role of the RE becomes community-facing. An RE is chosen to manage reviewer selection for peer review, coordinate reports and facilitate discussion. Both the SE and RE sign the final decision letter, and they are named on the published paper.

In the preprint, the authors investigated gender imbalance in the involvement of REs in different aspects of the manuscript evaluation process. The data comprised two datasets, covering the period 2017-2019*. The ‘BRE dataset’ contained anonymised information regarding the involvement of each RE in the editorial process. The Manuscript dataset contained information relating to the processing and outcome of each manuscript. It also included the recorded gender of the handling RE and the SE, and the disciplines that the authors assigned to their manuscript. The authors used these two datasets to investigate whether involvement of REs in various stages of the editorial and review process are impacted by gender.

It is worth noting that the authors note limitations of the gender assignment process used in this analysis.

*Since 2019, eLife has made specific efforts to increase the representation of women on their BRE.

Key findings

Gender disparity

As an initial overview, the authors found that the proportion of time contributed as an RE was proportional to the number of men and women RE’s. Over the three-year period analysed, months of BRE service increased slightly for women, but did remain lower than the time contributed by men. In 2019, over a total number of 4,756 combined BRE service months, men contributed 66.13% of this time, with women contributing 33.87% (expected given there are more men than women in the BRE).

How might gender influence invitations to participate in the editorial process? The authors found that the number of invitations to REs from SEs to participate in internal-facing initial consultations did not differ between male and female REs, but that women engaged less with these invitations. Women were slower (by seven hours on average) to respond to invitations to participate in initial review, thought likely to be attributable to time burdens on women, such as teaching and administrative roles. Women REs are also more junior, on average, than men REs, and therefore perhaps younger and more likely to have care-giving roles as a parent, or in a tenure-track position and focusing on research output. With men quicker to respond, this could allow men REs to set the tone of early discussion around the manuscript.

For the community-facing role of managing peer review of first-round accepted manuscripts, a disparity in gender was also evident. Women REs were assigned 9% fewer manuscripts by SEs than men, which, although possibly influenced by the slower initial response of women REs, is reflective of general trends for male researchers being disproportionately involved in community-facing roles. Whether inherent biases motivate SEs to select men for this role remains to be determined. Notably, authors were far more likely to suggest male REs at the point of manuscript submission, regardless of the expertise keywords assigned to each RE.


Homophily is the principle that contacts between similar people – for gender, cultural, behaviour or any other dimension of similarity – are more common than those between dissimilar people. In this study, the authors looked at the tendency for authors and SEs to preferentially choose REs of the same gender for manuscript handling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the homophily effect was evident across 14 out of 18 possible disciplines, with SEs more likely to assign same-gender REs to handle manuscripts. This was true for both men and women. As the authors describe, women homophily might go some way to offset the male-dominated gender biases we see in scientific publishing but is not a preferred approach for levelling gender representation. There is also the suggestion that men homophily further exacerbates publishing discrepancies, with all-male reviewers more likely to accept manuscripts led by men. Thus, homophily can undermine the neutrality of peer review.

Why is this study important?

We know that women are not equally represented in STEMM research and publishing, and that many recent initiatives have strived to promote women in STEMM roles. At face value this is a positive move, but this preprint highlights that working to increase diversity does not necessarily result in equity or inclusivity. As their findings show, gender biases (conscious or unconscious), homophily, and wider gender-based societal expectations, are pervasive in their impact on women working in STEMM.

As we aim for greater DEI in STEMM, we need to think about how to overcome barriers to equal participation and involvement. Increasing diversity is a good thing, but this study shows that that should only really be a starting point: efforts should be made to ensure that women are included to the same level, as well as just being represented.



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Author's response

Tal Seidel Malkinson and Tamar Makin shared

We know that diversity in science goes much further than gender representation. You mention collecting data on racial diversity of authors in this study (and the limitations you encountered in doing so), but do you have plans to investigate this further in terms of racial diversity and/or geographical location of members of the editorial board?

Intersecting identities (geography, ethnicity, family obligations, ability, sexual preference etc) are very important factors that unfortunately were not included in our datasets and therefore we could not examine. Some data about these factors in eLife’s Board of Reviewing Editors were collected recently (2021) by eLife (not by the authors of this paper) as self-reports. eLife published a comprehensive blog analysing these data ( The main limitation eLife notes is that only a minority of the Editors (40% overall) answered the survey, so it is possible that the results are not representative of eLife’s editorial boards, especially as it is perhaps reasonable to assume that someone’s motivation or comfort around sharing this kind of information is not independent from their personal identities. Yet, cross-referencing these data showed that self-reports about geography and, for Reviewing Editors, career stage do cover a representative cross-section of editors. It would be interesting to investigate in the future how these factors influence editorial activities and how they interact with gender.

You also talk about the drawbacks of homophily, but I wondered if you thought mandates or quotas for inclusion might be used more positively, or whether they would also have detrimental effects?

We did not think about quotas as potential solutions to the issues we identified in this paper. Quotas are a very heavy cannon that can raise many objections and backfire. Yet, quotas can be an important tool when other means of increasing the representation of women were not efficient enough. For example, in France the 2011 quota law, aiming to increase women representation at the highest corporate level in the country’s largest firms, had a very positive impact and led to an increased representation even in smaller firms not compelled under the law (Govotsos 2017). Thus, quotas can change societal norms. However, as our study suggests, this is not the end of the story because even if numerical equality is reached by using quotas or otherwise, there is no guarantee that these women will be able to contribute equally.

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