The recent shift towards DEI-related values motivates technology providers to catch up and address the voids alongside key stakeholders, while facing cultural and technical challenges.
In recent years, the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in publishing is an increasingly exposed gap in our community and our operations. The longstanding North American/Euro-centric standard of publishing has introduced a plethora of shortcomings on diversity and inclusion (D&I) within the industry, as the voices represented in both research and the publishing workforce have substantial implications for how knowledge and procedures are shaped. Due to limited gender, racial, and geographic diversity on editorial boards and reviewer pools — and a dose of unconscious bias — disparities in hierarchy, workflow, and scholarly output are evident, especially at stages of decision-making. Publishers often find themselves in unintentional echo-chambers that continue to amplify the same voices and viewpoints. This can create a barrier for advancement of underrepresented groups, such as women, people-of-color, people from lower income countries, or other minorities, and result in lower research integrity.
To synthesize the current situation, deeply ingrained patterns of exclusion and inequities in practices, policies, and frameworks drive how scholarly works are produced. Not only this, but it also heavily influences how technical publishing solutions are developed. Legacy technologies in the industry were purpose-built to meet the needs of the communities in which they served — the publishers of the day — and are therefore a direct reflection of their priorities and values of the time. Due to historical societal norms and a shortage of representation, DEI-driven innovations in the industry have not been universally prioritized as each publisher weighted the priority and management individually per their own standards. Also, there have been other factors which have potentially hindered advancements in DEI, such as GDPR and like privacy initiatives and their potential impact on decisions about whether collecting personal and/or sensitive data is appropriate. As DEI slowly builds momentum in the scholarly publishing collective consciousness, attention is drawn by a few newer technical solutions introduced within the past decade or two, which were developed to address some of the existing gaps and provide support. This includes AI-powered language editing tools, anonymous peer review workflows, reviewer databases, etc. However, the introduction of such tools also highlights how even technologies can have their own biases without targeted care towards eliminating them. For example, the removal of identifying data through anonymized peer review does not automatically mean there is an absence of bias. The recent shift towards DEI-related values motivates technology providers to catch up and address the voids alongside key stakeholders, but innovators face additional challenges—such as a lack of standardization across systems and publishers alike, in incorporating diversity and inclusion policies and functionality.
Promoting a diverse and inclusive publishing ecosystem can result in many benefits beyond the obvious moral and ethical reasons, including potential societal change, increased innovation, improved stakeholder satisfaction, enhanced quality and credibility, broader shared perspectives or scope, stronger performance and potential revenue, and more. However, it can be difficult to create a firm action plan to foster DEI policies without a clear, informed understanding of where improvements need to be made to policies and technologies. Most publishers acknowledge that biases exist and are eager to take positive steps to mitigate them, but may get lost on where to direct their efforts. Publishers often focus on one end of the funnel — for example, increased submissions from Asia — without the ability to track how these voices are incorporated in other aspects of the peer review process. There are other voids in DEI often not considered, such as the makeup of their editorial boards, lack of mentorship options to support decision-making Reviewers and Editors, weak incentives or education to Editors and editorial staff to ensure conscious and unconscious bias is managed, and more. To address these lapses in diversity and inclusion more broadly (and more accurately), publishers and technology providers must partner to create a universal solution to a common problem.
An excellent current example of this is the Joint commitment for action on inclusion and diversity in publishing lead by the Royal Society of Chemistry. To help identify and reduce bias in their own publishing activities, the Royal Society of Chemistry held a workshop to share their practical framework for action with other publishers. It was here in which the idea for the Joint Commitment was born and later formally launched in June 2020. The Joint Commitment, a collective of 53 publishers worldwide across a wide range of disciplines, pledge “to improve inclusion and diversity in scholarly publishing with and for the research community” by dissecting their own processes to minimize biases. Signatories of the commitment — including Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Brill, PLOS, OUP, CUP, and ASCE just to name a few — have divided themselves into subgroups and combined their resources, expertise, and insights to work against these four commitments:
Understand our research community
Reflect the diversity of our community
Share success to achieve impact
Set minimum standards on which to build
After establishing standards in which to build as part of objective number four, the Joint Commitment turned their focus to objective number one – better understanding the scholarly community. To achieve this, the Diversity Data Questions subgroup of the Joint Commitment developed a set of standardized questions for collecting self-reported gender, race, and ethnicity (GRE) data. Having a firmer grasp on the demographics of the publishing landscape will allow the collective (and other publishers) to set appropriate goals, take decisive actions, and hold the industry accountable for progressive change. The questions were created with the help of published research, input from experts of global racial and ethnic census classifications, and the subgroup’s own experiences. The group tested their drafted questions through a pilot survey to researchers within the industry, queried their comfort sharing GRE information and opinions of the characterization of the options provided, and made adjustments to their schema based on critical feedback from respondents.
In addition to standardization across publications, there are additional complexities that need to be considered by publishers of the Joint Commitment and technology providers. GDPR compliance and data sensitivities — in both collection and storage — are paramount, and cultural understanding of demographics differs across nations (e.g. perceptions of social categories). Elsevier, a global leader in information and analytics and one of the publishers of the Joint Commitment collective, and Aries Systems, a leading technology provider of workflow management solutions to the scholarly publishing community, have partnered to apply the progress of the Joint Commitment in practice. The collaboration produced a flexible API that incorporates the Joint Commitment’s endorsed GRE schemas into Aries’ Editorial Manager® (EM), the cloud-based manuscript submission and peer review tracking system. This integration allows Elsevier publications to easily capture and reference self-reported GRE information from Authors, Editors, and Reviewers, enabling evidence-based decisions regarding diversity and inclusion improvements across their portfolio.
To make the Joint Commitment’s standards accessible to a wider audience and help further these DEI efforts in the scholarly industry, Aries Systems is actively working to expand the API’s structure to a more general design that will allow any of the near 9,000 publications using Editorial Manager to take advantage of the GRE functionality. The publisher-agnostic model, shared with the Joint Commitment collective, will eliminate any need for individual publishers to build their own diversity data system and promotes a standardized approach to DEI initiatives, allowing for consistent benchmarking and analysis of self-reported GRE data and a broader measuring of global community progress in this area. Publications using Editorial Manager will have two options for collecting the GRE data. The first uses the APIs described above in which the Business Publisher presents the questions and stores the responses outside of Editorial Manager and Aries provides the seamless connection. The second enables all of the questions and responses to be collected by Aries and stored in a secured location outside of Editorial Manager. For those publications using the latter pathway, anonymized reporting will be available to report on data range, role, business publisher or individual publication. A robust audit log will track all actions taken, and visibility will be limited to ensure the data is free from bias.
Analyzing and interpreting the data captured is critical to creating an informed action plan. As reported by the Royal Society of Chemistry in their published framework, their data analysis revealed the following lapses in their operations:
Differences in the likelihood of article acceptance depending on the gender of Authors, Editors, and Reviewers
Differences in decision-making by Editors and Reviewers depending on gender and geographical location at each stage of the publishing process, which impacts Authors
Women are at a disadvantage compared to men when disseminating their research
Aries and the Joint Commitment’s initial focus for reporting against the GRE schemas targets the rate of participation, meaning how many users are providing the information and how many are opting out, and working to improve engagement. As there is statistically a significant volume where anonymization can be preserved, GRE can be viewed by role in the editorial system to get an idea of where to focus ones energy in creating an inclusive experience. More robust reporting will evolve as the Joint Commitment, in collaboration with Aries, better defines the requirements and standardizes on such in response to the data received. Publishers may seek to report on article acceptance/rejection rates, reviewer selection and completion rates, manuscript submission origins, and more against collected GRE information.
Although not a comprehensive solution to address all DEI issues in publishing, crafting and applying the standardized questions for self-reporting identifying data is the first step in identifying the gaps that need to be closed. For example, other gaps — including lack of accessibility due to high costs of legacy systems and technology, limited funding for open access fees, language barriers, etc. — are still a challenge for the Global South and beyond. To maximize these current efforts with the Joint Commitment, there is an opportunity particularly for commercial publishers to leverage their scale, and take their collaboration in this space a step further. Traditionally, publishers value keeping their proprietary data private, harnessing it for a competitive edge and to support their stakeholders. However, should publishers agree to share anonymized data (including the self-reported GRE information), they can break down barriers to achieve common goals for the greater good. What we could accomplish in support of our communities and other strategic global missions is limitless through true engagement, collaboration, and transparency across all levels of scholarly publishing.
Embracing diversity and inclusion contributes to the quality of research, inspires innovation, and makes for a healthier ecosystem. Publishers can make data-driven efforts to minimize bias and support diversity and inclusion in their operations, such as introducing frequent staff awareness and trainings on unconscious bias; diversifying the Author, Editor, and Reviewer network to the widest talent pool available; enhancing the appointment process for editorial board members; providing acknowledgement or mentorship to peer reviewers, offering grants to women or other targeted groups, and more. Although not likely to surface in the immediate future, our progressive ideal for open transparency and collaboration across for-profits and other stakeholders in the industry serves as a call to action for brighter possibilities against universal issues. Positive strides made in the industry to adopt DEI priorities, courtesy of efforts like the Joint Commitment, are slowly (but surely!) coming to be reflected in editorial management processes and technology — championing global community commitments for change.
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