Friday, 28 September 2018

Submit a Manuscript, Encounter a Bias

An article in Times Higher Education (Pells 2018) discusses the presence of national, racial and gender bias in academic journal publishing. It prompted me to write my thoughts on the matter, as follows.

I have been an international academic journal editor for 33 years and have seen more than 10,000 papers into print. When I deal with manuscripts I struggle to be objective, balanced and fair. However, one of my principles is that my loyalty is to the journal, not the authors, whoever they are. My aim is to build a better journal, in which authors will recognise the quality and want to publish their work. This means being strict about the quality of what I accept for publication. If there are patterns in quality, the contents of the journal will reflect them. That may seem very simple, but there are two other issues. The first is that there is a thread of serious bias among referees. I first noticed it in 1985 when I started my editorial role. Willingness to review papers is related to gender, national origin and whether or not European or North American men are among the authors. In the1980s and 1990s I termed it ‘academic racism’: that may be an overstatement but it is certainly part of the ‘clannisness’ of academic life. It is not by any means universal, but it is a highly consistent phenomenon. I find papers from authors in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and India take much higher than average effort to get reviewed. This may be because of a record of poor science and scholarship in these countries, but it is particularly hard on good and aspiring authors from such places, who must struggle harder to achieve recognition. Fairness means that even second-rate papers need to be reviewed and their shortcomings (gently) pointed out to the authors so that they can improve their work, which will benefit us all. Not many academic referees operate on that principle. The second issue is competitivity. Universities put pressure on their employees to compete, especially in research outcomes. The result is a failure to help struggling academics elsewhere. For instance, westerners, by and large, are reluctant to give positive, constructive help to Africa authors. Some good work is coming out of African universities and it is a struggle to give it the recognition that it deserves. It is also a struggle to ensure that African authors feel included in the international research endeavour. It should not be.

Ultimately, present trends in academic publishing are unsustainable. The best research should involve collaboration in many different ways, and exclusionary policies and actions should be reduced. Fostering a community of scholarship means taking positive action to include those who would join it, and fairly recognising good work, whoever may be its author. I fear that requires a different model of university.


Pells, R. 2018. Male editors ‘more likely to accept papers from other men’. Study finds further evidence to suggest peer review process riddled with gender and racial bias. Times Higher Education, 28 September 2018.