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.
- Education pipelines. Academic pipelines describe programs that enroll students early in their education (starting as young as pre-kindergarten) and provide them with resources and support to directly enable their enrollment in higher education. These pipelines can be funded by a range of benefactors, from higher education institutions themselves to governmental programs or nonprofit groups, and most pipelines are specifically intended for members of minority groups. Though these systems have received some criticisms as of late, evidence supports that they directly enable students from minority groups to access higher education.
- Outreach policies. Many higher education institutions have embraced outreach as a primary tool for increasing diversity, and evidence supports that active counselling and simplification of the college application process directly support minority enrollment.
- Governmental policy and financial aid. There are many scholarship opportunities, especially governmentally-funded grants, for students from minority groups. Research supports the efficacy of these programs, especially when they provide enough funding to sufficiently cover unmet need or allow for enrollment commitments during high school. These programs complement several governmental policies and acts that support diverse enrollment in higher education.
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.
- Reduce hiring bias. There are several practical, well-supported strategies for removing conscious and unconscious bias from interviewing and hiring processes, such as awareness training, double-blinded resumes, work sample tests, and accessible interviewing practices.
- Use metrics. By quantifying diversity and discrimination in the workplace, institutions—both in academia and in scholarly publishing—can assess their current state and track changes over time to determine whether their diversity programs are yielding actual results.
- Reframe promotion and tenure committees. Educating members of promotion and tenure committees about implicit and systemic bias can help counter inequity in their decision-making. Additionally, institutions should reframe how these decisions are made by assigning credit for an employee’s service, providing constructive criticism with non-promotion decisions, explicitly advocating for minority members to be considered for research opportunities (such as conference presentations, colloquia, and research collaborations), and calling out instances of discrimination.
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.