Journal editors (mainly men) often self-publish – Study

Women scientists are vastly under-represented on the editorial boards of scientific journals, says a new study that examined 1,167 journals in 15 disciplines over 50 years.

“Gender inequality and self-publication are common among academic editors” (“Gender Inequality”) published in the journal Nature on 16 January also shows that men editors publish their own work (self-publishing) in the journals they edit at a much higher rate than do women editors – and men publish their own work sooner than do women after becoming a journal’s editor.

To produce the database (20,000 editors and 1,600 editors-in-chief) they studied, the five-person team led by computer science professor Bedoor AlShebli, who teaches at New York University in Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), and computer science professor Talal Rahwan, who teaches in the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYUAD, used three different digital databases.

First, utilising the database of Elsevier (a Dutch-based academic publisher that specialises in scientific, technical and medical journals, such as The Lancet), the team examined 173,000 editorial pages, approximately one-fifth of the global research output in the half century between 1970 and 2020. Elsevier provided the names and affiliations of 103,000 editors who oversaw 85,000 issues of the 1,167 journals covering 15 disciplines over five decades.

Then, using, an online programme that matches names against its database of more than 114 million given names, the research team was “with a high confidence” able to identify the gender of 81,000 editors and 4,700 editors-in-chief. To determine the publishing records of these scientists, the team matched this dataset with that of Microsoft Academic Graph.

“Our study has two main findings,” says AlShebli. “First, we showed that women have been under-represented on editorial boards of scientific journals over the past five decades and in almost all fields, the only exception being sociology. Overall, women constitute 26% of scientists, but only 14% of editors and a mere 8% of editors-in-chief.

“Second, we showed that 12% of editors publish at least one-fifth, and 6% publish at least one-third, of their papers in their own journal. This percentage is even higher in some scientific fields.”

Gender disparity data

According to Rahwan, while they expected to see gender disparity among the editors, they were surprised by the degree to which women are under-represented on editorial boards today.

The study shows that over the past half century, the percentage of female scientists who fill the editor’s chair has remained constant at about half the overall percentage of female scientists.

In 1970, 11.3% of scientists were women and about 5.7% were editors. In 2017, women made up 35% of scientists: just over half (18%) were editors. Between 1970 and 2003, the line on the graph showing the percentage of female scientists who were editors-in-chief is in the low single digits. The slope turns decidedly upward around 2004 until it reaches 12% in 2017.

AlShebli and Rahwan’s analysis of different fields reveals some intriguing data. In sociology, during the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s, the percentage of women editors exceeded the percentage of women scientists in the field. In the 2000s, more than 60% of sociology journals were edited by women while their percentage in the field was near 55%.

A decade later, the proportion of female editors dropped approximately 10 percentage points while in the same period, women filled some 63% of the sociology professorships. (AlShebli and Rahwan point out, however, that since sociology is the discipline with the smallest population in the dataset, they cannot rule out the probability that such fluctuations happen by pure chance.)

Over the decades, in maths, physics, material sciences and engineering, the percentage of female scientists who are editors has barely changed and is clustered around 10%. The researchers also found that with the exception of sociology, the average editorial tenure of male editors, 5.3 years, exceeds females by about a year. In maths, philosophy, economics and business, male editors last, on average, more than six years.

The counterfactual analysis

The “Gender Inequality” study does not include qualitative data: for example, interviews with women professors about their career paths and whether they believed they had hit the “glass ceiling” or had their advancement into editorial positions blocked by the “old boy’s network”.

AlShebli and Rahwan do, however, interrogate this question through a counterfactual model that allows them to determine whether the under-representation of women as editors and editors-in-chief can be explained “by gender differences in productivity, impact and career lengths, or whether additional hidden factors are at play”.

When I asked Rahwan to explain the counterfactual model, he answered: “Imagine there exists a parallel universe that is identical to ours, apart from the single aspect we are trying to study. Comparing such a counterfactual universe to ours allows us to estimate the impact of the aspect in question.

“In our research, we simulate a counterfactual universe where editors are recruited in a gender-blind way. We found that such a universe would have many more female editors-in-chief than our universe, suggesting that editors-in-chief are not recruited in a gender-blind way.”

AlShebli and Rahwan’s team developed 50 counterfactual worlds. In each an existing editor is replaced by a randomly selected scientist who could have a different gender than does the editor but is of the same academic age and is comparable in terms of productivity and impact – impact being partially determined by the scientist’s ‘H-index’, a score that combines publications and citations.

In terms of women editors or, to be more precise, the lack of women editors, they found that “the gender gap among editors can be explained by the lack of women with sufficiently high productivity and impact”. This gap, in turn, they write, “can be explained by attrition of women from academia”.

Their counterfactual analysis shows also that in terms of the low proportion of female editors-in-chief, “factors other than career length, productivity and impact may be at play, and these factors seem to persist over the past decades”.

New insights into self-publishing

AlShebli and Rahwan’s huge longitudinal database allowed them to examine the activities of editors and editors-in-chief in regard to ‘self-publishing’ in greater detail than has any previous study.

The researchers begin by addressing the question, “Are editors members of the scientific elite?” The numbers suggest that they are. Editors are one-and-a-half times more likely to be affiliated with elite universities: 35% to 20%, for example.

Compared with average scientists of the same academic age and discipline, editors have published seven times more papers, 102:13, and have eight times the number of citations, 1,786:193. At the same point in their career that editors take up their positions with journals, statistically speaking, the average scientist has collaborated on 29 papers – an important measure of how much their work is esteemed by active colleagues. By contrast, scientists who become editors, have collaborated on an average of 163 papers.

The ‘definition’ of what constitutes an elite bibliometric record differs among the disciplines. Editors of biology journals have the highest number of citations. Chemistry editors are the most productive, having published on average 149 papers. “In contrast”, AlShebli and Rahwan write, “the impact seems to matter the least when recruiting editors in philosophy, sociology and political science, while productivity seems to matter least when recruiting editors in business and philosophy.”

At 16 years, the ‘academic age’ of editors of business journals is the youngest; physics is the oldest at 24 years. Philosophy is the discipline with the highest number of editors being affiliated with a top-ranking university at 47%.

Men are quicker to self-publish

Of all editors who have the highest self-publication rates, 10.02% of them are male and 9.86% are female. However, since males tend to be more productive, when AlShebli and Rahwan calculated these figures in terms of the absolute number of self-publications, they found that, of all editors who have the highest number of self-publications, 10.4% of them are male and 7.74% are female.

“In other words,” they write, “while men account for 84.8% of all editors, they account for 88.2% of the top 10% editors with the highest number of self-published papers.” Further statistical analysis showed that, at the start of their editorship, male editors show a higher increase in their self-publication rates compared with female editors.

For his part, Professor John A Douglass, senior research fellow and research professor in public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, says he is “not terribly surprised by their [AlShebli and Rahwan’s] analysis showing a lack of gender diversity among editors-in-chief, or that these editors, and those on editorial boards, seem to publish in the journals they oversee”.

In his email with University World News Douglass went a step further and pointed to earlier analyses of newer journals published in Asia in which researchers found “similar gender and publishing trends among those on editorial boards”.

‘Extreme’ editors

Of 15 editors who published the highest percentage of their papers in their journals, one is a woman and six are editors-in-chief. Because this sample is so small, in order to preserve their anonymity, AlShebli and Rahwan introduced random perturbations that show up in their graphs. The three, whom they call “the most extreme editors”, published 72%, 66% and 65% of their work in the journals each edited.

“These cases demonstrate that even if an editor publishes three-quarters of their entire career output in their own journal, they may continue to serve as editors for several decades.”

A ‘rectitude’ scale

Towards the end of their study AlShebli and Rahwan set their findings in a larger sociological context. The high rate of self-publishing by editors who also oversee the review process for submission to their journals is problematic at best.

“To an external observer, it may not be entirely clear how such articles are handled to circumvent the apparent conflict of interest,” they write, before addressing what might be called the “editor rectitude scale”.

“Some editors stand up for a more transparent selection of papers, and actively recruit board members from under-represented groups, while others exploit their power to benefit their careers.”

Their final question refers to the under-representation of women among journal editors: “Should we be satisfied with the increasing proportion of female editors over the past decades? Or should we be concerned that, despite all efforts to promote gender equality, women are still under-represented among editors in nearly all disciplines?”