A lack of diversity in publishing is hindering innovation

One of the challenges in academic publishing that has been continuously exposed in recent years is the lack of representation of people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives in the published literature.

The voices represented in published scientific literature have significant implications for the types and forms of knowledge that are produced and can eventually inform policy, practice and further research.

Therefore, it is important to consider the processes involved in determining what and how academic knowledge is produced and published. This is a role that is partially filled by the editorial board members of scientific journals, who manage and coordinate manuscript submissions.

Previous studies have highlighted glaring disparities in geographic and gender representation on the editorial boards of leading health journals. Women and individuals from low- and middle-income countries are consistently under-represented in these editorial board roles.

Of 42 medical or surgical journal editorial boards only 15% of editorial board members were women, while 40% of 27 global health journal editorial boards were women. Additionally, previous research found that over two-thirds of editorial board members in 10 environmental biology journals and in 27 global health journals were based in high-income countries.

The current lack of diversity in these leadership roles hinders innovation by perpetuating limitations in the advancement of knowledge and generation of breakthrough public health and environmental solutions, contributing to bias in how knowledge is shaped and interpreted and limiting the further professional advancement of underrepresented groups.

One-way direction of knowledge

Our recently published study is the first to analyse the editorial boards of over 600 peer-reviewed academic journals publishing in environmental sciences and public health, including 28,382 editorial board members.

The findings demonstrate that women and gender minorities make up one-third of editorial board members of journals publishing articles on the environment and public health. Furthermore, only 25% of the editors-in-chief of these journals are women or gender minorities.

This imbalance extends to geographic representation, with over 80% of editorial board members based in high-income countries and fewer than 5% based in lower-middle income or low-income countries. None of the editors-in-chief, and only 27 (0.1%) editors in total, were women based in low-income countries.

The most represented region of editorial board members’ countries was North America (39.5%) followed by Europe and Central Asia (32.9%), with 35.2% of editors coming solely from the United States.

Multiple scholars have pointed out how, largely due to persisting colonial legacies, the direction of knowledge often appears to be one-sided, missing out on the varied perspectives of our global population.

The growing body of evidence on the lack of inclusion in scientific knowledge production has far-reaching impacts for the power dynamics in the formulation and dissemination of scientific data and knowledge.

The evidence presented by this study exposes how much work needs to be done to promote both gender and geographic diversity in academia, including improving transparency and the opportunities for exposure to relevant academic experiences.

The need for global solutions

Previous research has minimally explored the full scope of diversity in public, environmental and occupational health and in environmental sciences disciplines. However, while the climate crisis is unfolding, these research areas – as well as their intersections – are growing and form a central part in assessing, predicting, adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and societies.

Counterintuitively, the cross-section of these fields, such as planetary health, calls for interdisciplinary, global and equitable solutions. But how can academia envision such research and solutions when only a select group of people control the narrative of what is published and therefore considered to be scientific knowledge?

Sara Dada is an Ad Astra Scholar and PhD candidate at UCD Centre for Interdisciplinary Research, Education and Innovation in Health Systems, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health Systems, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland. Kim van Daalen is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Unit, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom.