In recent years, improving diversity has been a core priority of many industries, including scholarly publishing and academia. Almost every large publisher has a dedicated Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion page, and most have published statements dedicating resources toward diversifying their staff, editorial board members, and authors. However, few initiatives have targeted the systemic barriers in place that fundamentally contribute to this inequality. Here, we’ll explore some underlying issues within the overall research publication system that must be addressed in order to achieve equity in academic publishing.

Understanding the Problem

In order to explore potential mechanisms to counter systemic barriers to research publication, we need to start by defining the problem. Systemic barriers describe “policies, procedures, or practices that unfairly discriminate” against marginalized groups, including racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, disability, and religious minority groups. Because of these barriers, authors from minority groups do not have equitable access to high-quality publication avenues as their non-minority counterparts; as a result, almost every academic publishing specialty area suffers from a lack of diverse perspectives and inequality. Likewise, members of minority groups who want to pursue careers in academic publishing industries face additional blockades and challenges than those who are not in minority groups.

There are many systemic barriers that create injustice in academic publishing. In this article, we’ll focus on two barriers that have been the focus of extensive research in recent years, with an exploration of some evidence-supported practices that can help counteract them.

Unequal Access to Education

Unequal access to education, especially due to race, is fundamentally connected to the United States’ history. As Dupree and Boykin (2021) explain, during America’s founding, it was generally illegal for slaves to receive education. Following the abolishment of slavery, the “separate but equal” precedence led to establishment of Black higher education institutions that were woefully unequal to White institution counterparts in quality and accessibility. As integration spread throughout America, minority scholars gained increased access to historically White higher education institutions but faced near intolerable levels of discrimination from students, professors, and administrators. Additionally, academia’s role in racial devaluation through research, such as publication of the biological determinism and the cultural deficit models, cannot be ignored. Similar processes of begrudging integration and enrollment into higher education spaces can be seen across the dimensions of gender, disability, religion, and more.

To this day, higher education institutions are affected by their histories of inequality and the systems that were originally designed to operate within these frameworks of discrimination. Generally, becoming an academic researcher in any field requires at least an undergraduate degree, if not a Master’s or Doctoral degree; as such, limited access to these degrees translates to limited access to research and publication participation.

Evidence-based solutions

Employment & Promotion Inequality

Inequality affects both those who work within academic publishing industry (journal editors, article reviewers, publication specialists, etc.) and the authors seeking publication in academic journals. Within academia, members of minority groups experience discrimination during the interviewing and employment process; this discrimination extends into promotion and tenure opportunities. In the publication industry, the lack of diversity is a known problem, with many initiatives targeted toward countering inequality. Many publishers have released statements acknowledging the inequities in their hiring practices, with Nature recognizing its own role in being “complicit in systemic racism” and publishing a lists of actionable commitments they’ve made toward improving diversity. However, the efficacy of these commitments remains unclear.

Evidence-based solutions

Advocate for funding equality. Many large funding bodies, such as the National Institutes of Health, and universities alike have been recently criticized for inequality in research funding and grant awardees. Because their available funding is minimized, researchers from minority groups are at a disadvantage to demonstrate publication excellence and research experience, which then leads to inequitable tenure and promotion decisions. To counteract this, organizations should evaluate their own funding demographics and overtly advocate for transparency and equality in funding allocation.

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