The changing face of Arabian dust storms
01 June 2023
Published online 17 January 2023
A detailed analysis of publishing data sheds light on gender imbalances among academic journal editors and the extent to which editors publish their own work.
Academic publishing and the peer-review process are central pillars in maintaining trust in scientific research. However, the system is not without flaws. One sensitive aspect is the appointment of editors, especially how well editorial boards reflect the diversity of researchers within a certain field, and whether some editors abuse their positions by self-publishing too much of their own work in journals they edit.
Now, a team led by Bedoor AlShebli and Talal Rahwan at New York University Abu Dhabi has provided new context to the debate, by analysing data from more than 1,000 journals. Their work gives unique insight into the gender composition of editorial boards and the amount of self-publishing that goes on.
“We wanted to understand how gender inequality in editorial boards has changed over the past decades across scientific fields, and were surprised to find no such study in the literature,” says AlShebli. “Our accompanying analysis of self-publication rates was inspired by a Nature news article discussing the case of an editor who published excessively in the journal he edits. We wanted to understand the prevalence of such behaviour.”
The team was given access to datasets held by Elsevier, which publishes one fifth of global research. They employed algorithms to classify the gender and publication records of thousands of editors and editors-in-chief.
“Analysing more than 100,000 editors is not a small feat,” says Fengyuan Liu, doctoral student and lead author on the team’s paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour. “Each editor’s record had to be linked to their research profile, which was obtained from an even larger dataset.”
The analysis showed that 26% of the authors in the dataset were women, but this proportion was not reflected in the editorships in all subject areas except sociology.
“We found that the proportion of women is very small among editors (14%) and even smaller among editors-in-chief (8%), which is worrisome given the critical role that editors play in science,” says Rahwan.
At face value, the study supports the notion that non-meritocratic factors may be at play in selecting editors, and that women may face additional obstacles and glass ceilings in their careers. However, while the researchers support advocating for inclusive editorial boards, they are cautious about jumping to conclusions.
“One explanation could be maternity, or various biases against women, but more research is needed to understand the underlying mechanisms at play,” says AlShebli.
Meanwhile, the team’s analysis of self-publication rates showed that 12% of editors publish at least one fifth, and 6% publish at least one third, of their papers in the journal they edit.
“We were surprised to find editors who published more than 60% of their entire career’s research output in the journals they edit,” says AlShebli. The researchers point out that there are many innocent reasons why editors self-publish, so the study is not necessarily indicating widespread malpractice.
“Regulating self-publication is a complicated matter,” says Rahwan. “We are merely sharing our findings with the scientific community and leave the rest to policymakers.”
The team hopes to extend its study using larger datasets and apply its algorithms to other questions of equality within publishing. “We are currently investigating racial disparities in editorial boards,” says Liu.
"This analysis is very thorough and shows some interesting trends in the cultures of journal editing," says Mark MacGillvray, a programmer working to promote open access publishing with the OA.Works project. "However, the focus on Elsevier may make the results slightly biased towards Western authors, so I would be interested in seeing the work expanded to include more Chinese research, for example, using emerging open-access datasets."
Liu, F. et al. Gender inequality and self-publication are common among academic editors. Nature Human Behaviour https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01498-1 (2023).