Countering Systemic Barriers to Equity in the Academic Publishing Process

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.

Achieving Gender Equity is Fair and Desperately Needed

In the US, March is Women’s History Month, a time for celebrating the key part women have played in American history, and globally, March 8 was International Women’s Day, a day to “Celebrate women’s achievement. Raise awareness against bias. Take action for equality.” The theme for #IWD2022 is #BreakTheBias, a call to action and a stark reminder that while it is important to celebrate the progress that has been made on the path to gender equity, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Major League Baseball serves as a microcosmic example of the problems facing society when it comes to gender equity. Though there has been progress toward equality in baseball recently (MLB scored a C for gender hiring in the 2021 Racial and Gender Report Card from the University of Central Florida [up from an F in 2020]), most notably with the hiring of Kim Ng by the Miami Marlins as the first female general manager in baseball, there remains a long way to go. And certainly, as baseball finds itself on the verge of having to cancel another batch of regular-season games due to a continuing labor dispute, it has escaped no one’s attention that the most active and visible people involved in negotiations on both the MLB and MLBPA sides are all men, and things have gone horribly.  

In STEM fields, the stakes are higher and contributions by women have been overlooked throughout history. The lack of scientific innovation has real consequences and leads to missed opportunities for advancement in crucial areas. The climb toward gender equity in STEM is a work in progress, but barriers persist and have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Instead of having the best minds working on solving the biggest problems facing the world, such as the climate crisis, we’ve spent too much time with one hand tied behind our collective back by making it unnecessarily and irrationally difficult for women to contribute.

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Scholarly and scientific publishing are not immune to gender inequity, with biases endemic in their editorial infrastructures and reflected in their ranks of authors, reviewers, and editors. Recent studies have found clear disparities on the editorial boards of journals in psychology and neuroscience as well as chemistry. A study published last month in the Journal of Information Science found no significant difference in publication rates by gender over the course of the pandemic overall, but the evidence points to gender bias being still quite prevalent in certain fields.

As Jennifer Tour Chayes noted recently, “addressing the gender disparity in STEM isn’t just a question of striving for a fairer society, it’s also fundamental to solving the complex challenges that affect us all.” Scientific advancement springs from the minds of creative, innovative, and doggedly determined people. By not having equal support, training, funding, and hiring opportunities available for women, we are missing out on finding the best and the brightest among all of us – this is not only wrong and unfair, it’s harmful.