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Diversity in peer review

Why this year’s Peer Review Week (10 – 15 September) is focusing on diversity and inclusion.

Peer review is like democracy, the saying goes, despite its flaws, it’s the best system we have.

About four years ago, there was a lot of media attention focused on the negative aspects of peer review. A group within the scholarly communication community wanted to push back, to share the message that good review – in whatever shape it takes – is critical to maintaining research quality.

The result was Peer Review Week.

“When we first started out it was a core group of organisations, but over the last couple of years we’ve expanded,” says co-founder and this year’s co-chair, Verity Warne from INASP. “Peer Review Week is not just publishers talking to publishers, it’s also researchers, academic associations and other types of organisations that have an interest in peer review.” ORCID, Sense About Science, INASP, the Royal Society, F1000, Publons, journals, and a host of other organisations now come together to host events discussing – and celebrating – the contributions that peer review makes to research.

Previous years have focused on issues like recognising reviewers’ work (2016) and transparency in peer review (2017). Peer Review Week 2018, which runs 10 – 15 September, is focusing on diversity and inclusion.

Why this theme? Verity says, “Talking about fairness in peer review has always been important. Looking at diversity from all different angles is on the radar of everyone interested in improving peer review.”

The benefits of exposing research to a diversity of perspectives

A pool of reviewers with diversity in gender, location and career stage helps maintain scientific quality by exposing new research to a range of perspectives, but there are other benefits too.

“One of the things that often gets talked about in diversity is representation,” says Verity. “For example, when you look at diversity in senior leadership roles, some organisations say, ‘Well people [from underrepresented groups] don’t come forward so we don’t have the people to pull up.’ Because peer review is potentially an entry point, there’s a real opportunity to use it to attract new communities and groups that are underrepresented.”

Carrying out peer review also gives researchers an opportunity to improve their own writing skills by learning what good papers look like. “So that’s another benefit, particularly for early-career researchers and those that don’t have much experience of publishing in large Northern journals,” says Verity.

One of the perennial problems journals in particular face is that the review pool isn’t large enough. Editors are relying on the same familiar faces to carry out more and more reviews. But with senior researchers overworked and mounting levels of academic housekeeping, widening the pool of reviewers is to the benefit of everyone.

While more reviewer training could certainly be offered to inexperienced researchers as part of research-communication and early-career training programmes, conferences can take steps to increase diversity within their own review pools.

Boosting diversity within the conference review pool

“Some established reviewers consciously work to provide opportunities to their PhD students to review,” Verity says. “That’s one way [of increasing the reviewer pool], but there’s a danger that you’re still going to the same group of people.”

Thinking about who you’re asking to review is an important first step for conference organisers. “How does your pool of reviewers look in terms of gender, age, location, even discipline?” asks Verity. While it may not always be appropriate to consider, for example, the perspectives of practitioners alongside those of researchers, having a variety of voices from within your community is important.

Annette Flanagin sits on the organising committee of The Peer Review Congress, an event with a long history of presenting research on bias in peer review, publication, and grant funding, under the founder Drummond Rennie who is a strong proponent of diversity. The organisers of the congress begin with “broad outreach to researchers interested in improving peer review and scientific publication,” says Annette. “We encourage collaboration with and mentoring of junior researchers. We have offered sponsored scholarships to many researchers from resource-poor countries to enable them to participate in the Peer Review Congresses. Many of these folks are also invited to serve as peer reviewers, which helps grow the diversity of the reviewer pool.”

Annette also recommends inviting the authors of last year’s successful submissions to participate as peer reviewers for future conferences, including junior researchers and those who represent geographic diversity or other disciplines.

Alongside this, Verity suggests actively seeking out opportunities to branch out. “Look at other organisations and networks that are emerging, for example associations and organisations that aren’t in the Global North, and reach out to them. There are so many different groups that exist, I think it’s about finding time and space to connect with them.”

Fixing the democracy

This year’s Peer Review Week is hoping to source as many different perspectives as possible on diversity and inclusion. The initiative has an international outreach committee with a focus on connecting with new organisations in Africa, Latin America and Asia. And it’s encouraging anyone who wants to set up their own event to do so. The week will see a range of activities like webinars, panel discussions, peer review awards, workshops and social media activity.  

Verity says, “When we initially looked at how to frame the issue we had a set of questions we wanted to ask, but we realised they might be kind of leading. The whole point of diversity and inclusion is to make sure that you’re not inadvertently shutting anyone out of the process. So rather than saying, ‘these are the things we want to talk about,’ we made it quite porous.

“What I personally would be really interested to see is: what are issues that we might not even have considered? By having that debate you open up the discussion.”

“We’re not going to come up with solutions in one week,” says Verity. But raising awareness of the issues may be an important first step in fixing the democracy.

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Want to learn more about diversity in peer review? Join in the many online events happening throughout Peer Review Week.

Dee McCurry
Dee moved back from London to help Ex Ordo tell their story. Although she finds it tough to find turmeric lattes and other hipster nonsense in Galway, she enjoys writing about the weird and wonderful world of research conferences.
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