Maintaining diversity and inclusion in editorial and peer review positions A journal editor's perspective

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This article is part of a Series
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Peer Review 2018

The theme for Peer Review Week 2018 is diversity in peer review and includes an interesting range of topics within its scope – inclusion of early career researchers in peer review, gender bias in peer review, geographical distribution of reviewers, etc. Here’s a series of posts dedicated to this year’s event and theme. Don’t forget to catch the special series of contributions from researchers and industry professionals on the theme of diversity.

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Maintaining diversity and inclusion in editorial and peer review positions A journal editor's perspective

The challenge of diversity is a critical topic. Let me tell you about our experiences in addressing diversity in the case of Associate Editors of the SAJS. We have still to address reviewers properly -- but I'll get to that shortly.

Maintaining diversity in the editorial positions at SAJS: When I joined the editorial team at the end of 2012, the team of ten Associate Editors (AEs) included one woman (AE for Forestry and Agriculture) and three people who were not white (Health, Physics/Astronomy, and Engineering/Technology). The AE for Health retired (he was already well over 70, and his going was a real loss as he had previously been the Editor of the South African Medical Journal, or SAMJ); the AE for Engineering/Technology was promoted and became a Deputy Vice Chancellor, and felt that his hands were too full to continue; and the AE for Physics/Astronomy was appointed to a national position in the Square Kilometer Array.

We have always aimed to address both gender and ethnicity shortcomings. We were much more successful in addressing gender -- as things stand, six out 10 AE positions are held by women (including for Physics/Astronomy, Engineering/Technology, Forestry, and Palaeontology/Palaeoanthropology).

However, ethnicity has been a greater challenge (by far) for two main reasons -- we had some really bad experiences with AEs who simply didn't do their jobs; and many of the people we approached were too busy to take on anything further. So we now have just two AEs who are not white (Organismal Biology and Engineering/Technology).

To address this, we have started a Mentorship programme and have selected two applicants for the process this year, in Earth and Environmental Sciences, and in Education/Sociology (who is my mentee). So far, it's working well.

That's the story: what are the basic, larger-level issues that a journal faces? And what should journal editors do? First, it's essential to know/acknowledge that there are problems -- and equally essential to be committed to addressing the inequalities. Then, it's important to monitor change and to bear successes and failures in mind when filling editorial or reviewer positions. Finally, it's essential to support new appointees where this is necessary. (There are always exceptions: our AE for Engineering and Technology is a woman and is not white; she is an Associate Dean in a large Faculty, and runs an NRF CoE/Chair. She is also amongst the most efficient of our AEs.). I suppose the only other basic issue is to retain a balance -- 100% women AEs would, for us, be as bad as 100% men!

All of this is easier in the world of "science/scholarship" (over-work excepted) than some other areas, as it's in the nature of the realm of research that most people will be competent and often better than that.

Maintaining diversity in the peer reviewer pool: The same principles hold -- although for an Editor-in-Chief this is more difficult to address (at second hand) and so the process requires more care and analysis on a reasonably regular basis. Then, of course, the next step is to help AEs find suitable reviewers who, at the same time, address inequalities.

We've been fortunate in two ways: most of our AEs are alert to the need for change and spread their searches for reviewers as widely as they can. And the mentorship programme has also helped -- both mentees have networks of colleagues who are not always part of the more conventional range of networks. This is a real boon. 

One other point: for the SAJS, it has also become one of our aims to support younger (often black/women) researchers who wish to publish. This takes a great deal of time and commitment -- we recently published a Commentary titled "Owning the lake, not just the rod." It was written by three young scientists, none of whom yet had a PhD (I think!) -- and it took a good deal of their time, and mine, to get the paper "right." It's that kind of commitment -- but it pays off: the authors gained a range of experiences, and their article has had good press coverage.

But supporting young researchers to publish in the SAJS is not a simple matter: on one hand, it is a good way to get into publishing in a reasonably well respected, internationally rated, journal; on the other, many supervisors with whom I speak, encourage their postgraduate students go publish in the best possible specialist journals in their fields so that they gain profiles amongst their peers. Both are valid notions.

In short, journal editors face a lot of challenges when it comes to maintaining diversity. At the SAJS, we’ve always been strongly in favor of ensuring inclusion and maintaining a balance in our editorial staff and peer reviewer pool.

For more interesting views on peer review, follow our Peer Review Week 2018 series.

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Published on: Sep 14, 2018

Experienced journal editor, scholarly publishing professional, and education expert.
See more from Dr. John Butler Adam

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