Observations from my first year as an associate editor

Lisa Whitenack
Lisa Whitenack

For Peer Review week, Lisa Whitenack shares her observations from her first year as an associate editor. Lisa is an associate professor of biology at Allegheny College and Associate Editor for Neotropical Ichthyology. She also chairs the Equity and Diversity committee for the American Elasmobranch Society.


Somehow, I am now considered “mid-career”, even though I still feel like a total newbie. I am now into my second post-tenure year, and when people talk about the “senior faculty” at my institution, I keep forgetting that I am included. I now evaluate colleagues’ tenure dossiers, observe their teaching and write observations for their files, and can no longer be counted as a “early-career faculty” in grant and symposium proposals.

And along the way, I’ve done enough research and publishing to be asked to do more than review my colleagues’ manuscripts. Late August of this year marked my one year anniversary as an associate editor of Neotropical Ichthyology.

My workflow for this is as follows: I get an email alert that I have a manuscript waiting in my queue. I read the manuscript and look for appropriate folks to peer review the manuscript, and if they say yes, I wait until I get another alert that they’ve completed this job. Once all reviews are in, I read the reviews and often reread the paper, then determine what the decision on the manuscript is: accept, revise, reject, etc. Finding the peer reviewers is more difficult than I expected. I get a lot of no’s or no response at all. I think my record number of asks so far is 12 people, for reaching the minimum number of peer reviewers of 2. It helps that authors are asked to identify potential reviewers, and the management system we use will suggest additional reviewers as well. While those suggested reviewers are handy, I’ve noticed that most of suggested reviewers are men.

In other words, women are not often suggested as reviewers by either the authors or the management system.  To be perfectly honest, I have not been keeping a hard tally of reviewer gender, so I can’t report exact numbers or ratios. But it was something that caught my attention after a few rounds of handling manuscripts. In addition, it is a pattern that is documented in peer-reviewed literature. A 2017 study by Jory Lerback and Brooks Hanson shows that for the 20 American Geophysical Union journals, with almost 6000 papers considered, women are used less as reviewers than expected. Charles Fox, C. Sean Burns, and Jennifer A. Meyer found similar results for Functional Ecology, regardless of the editor’s gender.  Markus Helmer et al. found the same result for the Frontiers series of journals. Fox et al. found in a different study, also for Functional Ecology, that women were suggested reviewers less often than men.

For anyone feeling defensive after reading these words, the exclusion of women is usually unintentional and I am not accusing anyone of hating women. Both women and men  editors ask fewer women to peer review.  Thus I would wager that implicit bias, the unconscious attribution of stereotypes that affect our actions, is mostly what is at work here. Everyone has them, and you can see it for yourself if you take a few tests over at Harvard’s Project Implicit. For example, I am a cis-female who is a scientist, and according to the test I took at Project Implicit, I still have a slight bias of associating the liberal arts with women and science with men. The good news is that once you identify your implicit biases, whether based on gender, race, religion, or even weight, you can act against them. For example, you can run a letter of recommendation through Tom Forth’s Gender Bias Calculator to see if you are using female-biased words for women (service, teacher, caring, friendly), as opposed to the words that tend to get used for men (science, professor, leader).


The benefits of peer review

Anyone reading this post probably knows that peer review of manuscripts is an important part of being a researcher. I list the journals I review for on my C.V.—it shows that my expertise is valued in the larger scientific community and when I went up for tenure and promotion, it helped support my case for “excellence in research and scholarship”. If my colleagues did not value my knowledge and contribution to my field, I wouldn’t be asked to give my expert opinion and feedback for others’ science.

Reviewing manuscripts also helps me grow as a writer. I see some great (and not so great) writing and science when I receive a manuscript.  All of these great (and not so great) manuscripts stay with me as I write up my own work because I’m engaging with that work differently than when I read an already-published piece. I also bring these lessons into my role as professor. My students benefit from what I’ve learned in this process: how to write, how to peer review, how to respond to criticism, and how to communicate.

I also find it rewarding to do this work, especially when a student is the first author. I cheer for them when their paper is accepted, because it is a really big deal! I also make my reviews as encouraging as possible. It’s not because I think students need to be coddled. Rather, it’s because I have been in their shoes and have gotten some crap reviews. I remember getting a review for a manuscript based on my masters work; Reviewer 2 felt it was appropriate to write “if this paper was submitted in my graduate level class, it would only be a B” and recommended rejection. I had another reviewer, for another paper from my dissertation, who called my analysis “statistical bullsh*t”. While getting a review like that these days would earn me a piece of sympathy-chocolate, those reviews were just brutal to deal with as a student who hadn’t developed a thick skin yet.

Finally, I want to review manuscripts because people do it for me. I try to say yes to the same number of reviews as reviewers of my submitted paper, for each paper I submit. I view it as being part of a community that works together to advance our field.

Excluding women from a list of potential reviewers denies these colleagues all of these benefits, regardless of whether exclusion is intentional or not. And because we should be intersectional here, I suspect that other underrepresented groups (e.g. those who do not identify as white males) are also excluded more often. For my own situation, because the manuscripts that come into my queue concern fishes from Central and South American waters, as it is the purview of the journal, there are always Central and South American scientists that are suggested by the authors (though they do tend to be male). This makes my work easier with regard to representing regions other that the United States. However, this is not the case for less region-specific journals. For example, Fox et al. (2016) found that Functional Ecology editors chose more reviewers from North America than any other region, and editors tended to choose reviewers from their own geographic region.

But how do we apply this to peer review and choosing reviewers?

It turns out to be remarkably easy. You just have to make a conscious effort to choose female reviewers or reviewers from other underrepresented groups. In April, when I received a slate of all-male potential reviewers from both the authors and the management system, it took me literally 10 minutes (I timed it) to generate a list of qualified women to review this particular manuscript. That 10 minutes included the Google Scholar search and tracking down current email addresses. I was also able to increase the diversity of my reviewer pool to include early-career researchers, because that information showed up as I was figuring out the contact information. There are also sources such as 500 Women Scientists, which includes over 20,000 female-identifying scientists from around the world. You can use their “Request a Scientist” tool to narrow your search by interest, degree status, and whether the scientist self-identifies as an underrepresented minority. They also have a pretty comprehensive list of other databases such as Diverse Sources, which is searchable by expertise and languages.

Some studies, such as Lebrack and Hanson’s, found that women declined invitations to review at a slightly higher rate than men; they hypothesize that it is may due to the increased workload (service, family care) that women tend to experience (see here and here). This might happen to you too. However, women are still being suggested as peer reviewers less often than men, so fewer women get to the point of being able to turn down an invitation in the first place. It’s easy to give them that chance.

So, please do me (and our community) a favor. Authors, before you hit “submit”, take a look at your recommended reviewers. Are they all white males? If so, take that 10 minutes and see if you can fix that. Editors, take a look at who the authors and software are recommending as reviewers. Are they all white males? If so, take that 10 minutes and fix that.


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