Hidden biases result in unequal access for authors

Published online 3 April 2023

Non-white researchers face underappreciated hurdles in terms of representation on journal editorial boards and getting their research disseminated in the literature.

Michael Eisenstein

It’s no secret that racial and ethnic biases can have a pernicious effect on career opportunities for scientists. A recent analysis of journal articles from a team led by Talal Rahwan and Bedoor AlShebli at New York University Abu Dhabi now provides quantitative evidence of barriers that non-white researchers face in getting their work exposed to the broader community.

This study was a direct follow-up to previous work from the authors exploring gender bias in scientific journals. “We discovered a persistent gender gap in editorial boards across fifteen disciplines over the past five decades,” says AlShebli. “We were curious to find out whether non-white scientists face similar disparities.” To explore this question, she and her colleagues analysed one million papers accepted by six publishers between 2001 and 2020.

They first compared how well represented different countries were on journal editorial boards relative to the number of articles authored by scientists from those countries. This is an important metric, because these editors play a key role in determining whether articles get accepted or rejected. The team found that countries with majority white populations were consistently overrepresented on editorial boards relative to their authorial contributions, while Asia, South America and Africa were generally under-represented. 

As they proceeded with their analysis, the authors uncovered evidence of other disparities in the literature. For example, researchers from Africa, Asia, and South America were likely to experience significantly longer delays in the review process relative to authors from countries with majority white populations. “Such a disparity has never been demonstrated in the literature before,” says AlShebli. 

Notably, these same patterns emerged when AlShebli and Rahwan looked exclusively at researchers in the ethnically-diverse United States. When they classified researchers’ racial background based on their names, the authors saw a clear pattern of Black and Hispanic scientists dramatically underrepresented on editorial boards relative to white and Asian/Pacific Islander researchers. Black US-based scientists also experienced notable manuscript review delays relative to authors of other racial backgrounds.

Rectifying this situation will require some introspection by publishers, including evaluation of how editorial board members are selected and careful assessment of how the manuscript review process plays out. AlShebli says that she hopes to take a deeper dive into the factors that are delaying acceptance of manuscripts from non-white authors, and hopes that publishers will embark on a similar analysis of delays affecting papers that are ultimately rejected. Such data, she notes, “are typically available only to the publishers themselves.”


Liu, F. et al. Non-White scientists appear on fewer editorial boards, spend more time under review, and receive fewer citations. PNAS 120, e2215324120 (2023).