How can we promote diversity and inclusivity in peer review?

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The role of early career researchers in improving peer review diversity

Peer Review Week 2018

Catherine Walker of Sense about Science shares her perspective on the issue of diversity in peer review and highlights an important solution.

From Catherine Walker

‘Publish or perish’ is the advice given to every PhD or postdoc when they’re starting out in their academic career. Advice, it would seem, that is very much being taken to heart. Global scientific outputs are reported to double every nine years. While an increase in scientific knowledge is undoubtedly positive, critics of the ‘publish or perish’ culture warn that ‘salami slicing’ of research, multiplication of authorship and a harmful obsession with impact factors is leading to a compromise in research quality and integrity.

Many consider the peer review process to be a fundamental cornerstone of science, responsible for upholding robust and valid research. As the open access movement, advocating transparent and rapid publication, gains momentum, the peer review system is under increasing pressure. The number of journals is quickly proliferating and the reviewers approached by editors are either having to turn down invitations to review or allocate less time to the review process.

So how can the peer review process keep up with the fast-paced and ever-changing world of academic publishing?

The problem with peer review: how can we promote diversity and inclusivity in a closed off process?

Diversity in academia has a bad reputation – and the same can be said for peer review. Earlier this year, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) published data examining diversity in peer review. Women, minorities, and early career researchers (ECRs) were all found to be under-represented in the peer review process. Only 10% of reviewers were female despite making up 17% of the academic population in these fields.

The lack of diversity in peer reviewers is not surprising. The majority of reviewers approached by editors are principle investigators and late career researchers. And editors will very often approach the same pool of academics which burdens these reviewers with an increasingly overwhelming number of review requests. Not only does this result in a notoriously long back-and-forth between authors and reviewers, but it also means that the same people, with the same opinions, the same background and the same perspectives are gate keeping academic research.

While these academics are highly credible and have an abundance of experience, inclusion of ECRs in peer review will allow diversity and inclusivity in academia to flourish. Diversification of peer review can only act to strengthen the review process. New voices, new perspectives, and new ways of interpreting data help to challenge stagnant thinking. But what’s in it for ECRs?

What’s in it for early career researchers?

We’ve heard it all before – peer review is the cornerstone of scientific publication. Anyone who’s submitted a paper for peer review knows however that it can be a tough, long, and ultimately frustrating process. It can therefore be easy to forget that peer review encourages researchers to produce novel, rigorous and high quality science.

Playing a part in peer review is therefore essential to your personal and career development. Not only does it keep you abreast of the research in your field and emerging technologies, but it allows ECRs to refine their critical appraisal skills and promote the highest quality research possible.

So, get involved! Several journals have schemes to mentor new reviewers. Even if you don’t review under an official capacity you can still approach your boss and ask to be part of the process. Your work, and science in general, will be all the better for it.

Are you an early career researcher?

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Catherine Walker of Sense about ScienceCatherine Walker joined Sense about Science as a PIPs intern in September 2018. She is in the final year of her PhD in agricultural food security at Rothamsted Research and the University of Nottingham. Catherine’s work has particularly focused on studying the molecular interactions that occur between plant pathogenic fungi and their hosts. Her love of science is accompanied by an interest in how research informs policy and how it can be maximised for public benefit.