Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are priorities for today’s publishing industry, but peer review processes remain a particular challenge. Leveling the peer review playing field involves acknowledging and overcoming the inequities built into the system from its beginnings. And while the will is there, the way has not always been clear. Peer review equity is essential to the success of DEI initiatives throughout the publishing world. To get peer review — and DEI in general — right, publishers must first answer the following questions.
- What are the specific goals of DEI in peer review?
- How does reviewer identity and lived experience affect publication?
- Is anonymity the answer to conquering unconscious and hidden bias?
DEI goals for peer review
Marginalized groups have historically been excluded from the peer review process — to their own detriment and that of the academic community. Bringing equity to peer review begins by engaging a broader pool of reviewers. This is the first step to increasing academic rigor and enabling more inclusive research. And journal publishers are the ones to make it happen.
DEI goals for peer review vary by publisher and publication. Ideally, specific equity and inclusion goals are determined by identifying gaps in reviewer diversity. The Lancet, for instance, recognized an imbalance in the number of women engaged in its reviewing and editorial processes and committed to specific mitigation goals, including women as 35% of its reviewer count and 50% of its editorial board. Journal publishers can identify their own diversity weaknesses and set metrics for a specific ratio of reviewers to bridge any gaps. Does your peer reviewer pool include qualified reviewers of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, income level, age, geographical location, and race? Does it account for accessibility issues by engaging disabled reviewers? Set appropriate diversity metrics by surveying your current reviewer pool and acknowledging the gaps. Those gaps are your specific goals for diversifying your peer reviewer process.
The next challenge is, of course, how publishers can go about meeting those goals. It’s not easy to search for qualified peer reviewers by their demographics. Bibliographic databases are typically limited to publication and professional affiliation details. Author referrals are a useful resource if you can guard against confirmation bias and other conflicts of interest. Publishers tend to favor reviewers from their own region, so incorporating geographical diversity is another sound strategy. For the most direct approach, bring qualified reviewers to you by making your search — and the reasons for it — known in academic circles.
Setting and meeting DEI goals for peer review asks publishers to ask themselves tough questions, but ultimately DEI goals are just like any other. They work best when they’re specific, measurable, and attainable.
Overcoming unconscious bias
Everyone has hidden or unconscious biases. In one study, male reviewers were less likely to respond to review invitations for papers with female authors. The biases of reviewers — both conscious and unconscious — will ultimately affect the success of your DEI initiatives. How can publishers overcome biases at every stage of peer review?
The Scholarly Kitchen offers a few suggestions for overcoming unconscious bias from peer reviewers. These include:
- Awareness of, and screening for, unconscious and hidden biases.
- Clear communication with reviewers regarding assessment criteria.
- Quick action to address any bias revealed in review processes.
- Data collection and analysis throughout the process.
Journals typically include fewer women than they should in peer review, but how do publishers address this problem when a reviewer’s demographics are unknown? Are blind and open review the answers to publishing’s DEI goals?
Blind and open review
At least one study shows double blind peer review, when compared to single review, “had no overall difference in the acceptance rates of papers according to gender.” But it did appear to affect the volume of manuscripts selected from other countries. Other studies show open peer review as a valuable tool for eliminating gender bias. These tools are worth further exploration as publishers seek to improve DEI in peer review and the industry as a whole.