Journals invite too few women to referee

Bias — explicit and implicit — is an important cause of the under-representation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)1. Women and minorities are disadvantaged in hiring or promotion decisions, awarding of grants, invitations to conferences, nominations for awards, and forming professional collaborations2. These scholarly activities are crucial for career advancement and job retention.

Another career-building activity is serving as a peer reviewer for publications. This develops writing skills and expertise through exposure to other manuscripts, and fosters relationships with fellow scholars and scientific leaders. Such activities are especially important for young scientists.

But most publishers do not collect gender, age or any other relevant demographic information from authors or reviewers. So biases here have been harder to pin down. Most studies of gender inequality in publishing have assigned gender to authors3,4 but have lacked information on age. This is important because many fields have only recently seen increases in participation of women.

Here we present evidence that women of all ages have fewer opportunities to take part in peer review. Using a large data set that includes the genders and ages of authors and reviewers from 2012 to 2015 for the journals of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), we show that women were used less as reviewers than expected (on the basis of their proportion of membership of the society and as published authors in AGU journals). The bias is a result of authors and editors, especially male ones, suggesting women as reviewers less often, and a slightly higher decline rate among women in each age group when asked.

These findings underline the need for efforts to increase female scientists’ engagement in manuscript reviewing to help in the advancement and retention of women in science.

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