Experts speak – Why is diversity in peer review important for science?

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Experts speak – Why is diversity in peer review important for science?

As you may know, Peer Review Week 2021 focuses on the interesting theme of Identity in Peer Review. If you’re wondering why this was selected as the theme or how “identity” is connected with science or research, you will find this article very insightful. To start Peer Review Week 2021 on an exciting note, we decided to kick off Day 1 by reaching out to members of the scholarly publishing community who’ve been kind enough to share their views, anecdotes, and suggestions on facilitating diversity in peer review. Specifically, we asked them two questions:

What are your thoughts on diversity in peer review?

Why is it important for research and science?


Dr Shirin Heidari

Dr Shirin Heidari is the founder of GENDRO and Senior Researcher at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Dr Heidari is the founding chair of the Gender Policy Committee of European Association of Science Editors, and the lead author of the Sex and Gender Equity in Research (SAGER) Guidelines, as a tool to address gender bias in scholarly communication, as presented in her TEDx talk.

The peer review process is not spared from the sexism, racism and other biases in our society. Limited data reveal gender imbalances in pool of reviewers and gender biases in the peer review and editorial decision-making processes. Improving diversity in peer review can alleviate some of these problems. Peer reviewers are powerful actors that define quality of publications and are influential in what can be published. Diversity (including gender balance) can minimize biases and positively influence the research content. For example, it can support gender sensitive reporting or better reflect diverse expertise and perspectives, while it can help improving diversity in authorship. Being a peer reviewer is also considered an academic recognition and a gateway to editorial board membership, which are merits important to career advancement in academia.


Catherine Cocks

A twenty-year veteran of scholarly publishing, Catherine Cocks is the assistant director and editor-in-chief at Michigan State University Press. She is also the co-editor of Feeding the Elephant, an H-Net forum on scholarly communications, and the author of two scholarly books, Doing the Town (University of California Press, 2001) and Tropical Whites (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). Reluctantly, she also tweets @catherine_msup.

Identity and diversity are important in peer review today because they’ve always been important. For a long time, only a narrow range of people were able to get the education and career opportunities necessary to qualify as a peer reviewer. Though opportunities have broadened, structural inequities continue to shape who can become and succeed as an academic researcher. Particularly when scholars from marginalized groups challenge the intellectual status quo, the inherent conservatism of peer review can prevent them from getting published or from publishing in the most prestigious outlets, thus reproducing inequity and reducing innovation.

To interrupt this cycle, editors need to deliberately seek a diverse range of reviewers and to value a broad range of perspectives. Resources like Women Also Know Stuff, People of Color Also Know Stuff, and many others can help. In addition, journals and publishers should explicitly charge reviewers with evaluating whether a manuscript draws on a broad range of scholarship, including relevant works by scholars from marginalized groups. Citing only a narrow range of scholars—however prolific and well-known—should be considered a sign of inadequate research.

We must also push the boundaries of what it means to be a “peer.” Especially when a work treats a specific community or a sensitive social issue, the injunction “nothing about us without us” should inform the selection of reviewers. Are a position at a prestigious university, or tenure, or publication in top-ranked journals or at leading presses the best criteria for “peers” when all of those things are both scarce and inequitably distributed? Well-qualified “peers” occupy many other positions and participate in the intellectual enterprise in many ways. Editors need to look for them to do our part in dismantling the structural barriers to equity in publishing.


Nour Al-muhtasib