We’re back! Apologies for the long radio silence – day job, what can I say.
Last week Nature published a leader reflecting upon our performance as editors and journalists in the gender balance of our referees, commissioned authors, and journalistic profiles. The verdict? Plenty of room for improvement – in 2011, only 14% of Nature’s 5,514 manuscript referees were women. Those numbers are for all areas, both physical and life sciences. I don’t have the exact number for just neuroscientists but a quick partial analysis suggests it is in the same ballpark. How good/bad is 14%? According to a 2007 survey of North American neuroscience programs, 36% of neuroscience assistant professors, 28% of associate, and 21% of full professors are women. I don’t know what those percentages would be if you included neuroscientists from the rest of the the world (I’m guessing they would be lower), but I am fairly confident in saying we haven’t been grossly overrepresenting women in our referee picks.
So how do we choose our referees? In a nutshell: for each paper, we pick 3 (sometimes 2, sometimes more) people with expertise in the topic of the manuscript who we know to be rigorous, but fair, and timely reviewers. We try to ensure that all technical aspects of the study are covered, so sometimes we will bring people in who may not be experts in the subfield, but can assess individual experimental techniques used in the study. Most of the time we pick people who have reviewed for us before, not just because we think they are good reviewers, but so that we can appropriately weight their reviews based on our previous experiences of their editorial toughness, general stances on standards for their field, etc. We sometimes incorporate reviewer suggestions made by the authors if the suggested people seem appropriate to us, and if we already have experience with them. We don’t send papers to people excluded by the authors (within reason), and we try not to send papers to people’s bosom buddies, mortal enemies, recent collaborators or mentors (to the best of our knowledge). Newer referees are balanced with familiar ones on the roster so that we have a sense of how to calibrate their views.
Choosing experienced reviewers is relatively easy given there is a history of reviews and editorial notes to go on. The greater challenges are deciding when to follow up on a suggestion to try out someone we don’t know, and identifying potential new reviewers on our own – particularly young scientists. The first stop in the process is usually a google and/or Pubmed search to
check infer expertise. Recommendations from trusted reviewers play a part. An informative lab or personal website helps. We also invest a fair amount of energy in “scouting” personally. We take note when we have had constructive and productive exchanges with authors. When we go to conferences, we make mental notes when presentations impress us, or we have interesting scientific conversations while in line for coffee. Our ears perk up when a veteran referee touts the critical faculties of a senior postdoc. The occasional find has even come through blogs – I have contacted people on the basis of the careful, rigorous thinking evident in their posts.
But back to the gender imbalance in Nature’s referees. As the editorial says, we can and will try to do better in representing women appropriately in the review process. We aren’t about to institute any quotas, and we aren’t going to prioritize signing up women over assigning the most appropriate expertise. But we will be more vigilant about our choices when we go through the lists in our heads of people we think would be right to review a paper, and we will make more effort to identify new women referees. At the end of the day, like most other selection processes in science, it’s going to be based mostly on publications, reputation and personal interactions. But there are a few things that can help us locate talented reviewers, particularly among younger scientists.
To that end, here are a few practical tips/pleas to all neuroscientists, regardless of gender, from an editor:
- Have some form of web presence. If someone can’t find you, they can’t follow up on you. This is less of an issue in the US, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked for someone in Asia and had trouble.
- Keep the information on your website current, or if your department is maintaining your web entry, make sure someone’s keeping on top of it. Ensure that your publications, key research interests, and technical expertise are easily accessible.
- If you are a trainee and you co-review with your PI, make sure they let the editor know if you contributed significantly. We ask reviewers to do this anyway.
- If you are a PI and co-review with trainees, please credit them.
- PI’s: tell us about your promising trainees. When you suggest potential reviewers to us, a few words about their background, technical sweet spot and reviewing experience can be tremendously helpful.
These are just basic tips for raising any scientist’s visibility. What, you may ask, do they have to do with the
girl thing issue of increasing female representation? Here’s a proposal: senior scientists, if/when executing #5, please take one extra second to consider whether male and female mentees have been equally put forth. We’ll do the same on our end. Deal?