Nurture better than Nature in peer review

Founded in 1869 with a mission to aid and inform scientific men (as we are reminded every week), yesterday Nature published an editorial on how women contribute to the content of this general science magazine. Nature is ever popular and well read, or at least well cited as its latest impact factor of 36.28 shows. Researchers still aspire to publish in such an august periodical and many careers have been built on succeeding to do just that. Being a reviewer for Nature adds even more distinction to a scientist’s track record.

So how disappointing to find amongst other statistics from the gender audit that in 2011 only 14% of reviewers for the journal were women. That’s 6 men for every woman, numbers that sound much too familiar. The numbers can’t have been much of a surprise for Nature staff, but it comes as a surprise to readers after years of reading Nature articles about women in science, following the high profile debate on peer review on the NPG blog, and seeing evidence presented to the UK Select Committee investigation into peer review.

Unlike many journals, Nature does provides a statement on how reviewers are chosen.

Reviewer selection is critical to the publication process, and we base our choice on many factors, including expertise, reputation, specific recommendations and our own previous experience of a reviewer’s characteristics. For instance, we avoid using people who are slow, careless, or do not provide reasoning for their views, whether harsh or lenient.

There is no mention of avoiding women although essentially that is what has been  happening. Everyone would agree that a reviewer needs to be expert and efficient, but the ‘reputation’ and ‘specific recommendations’ criteria need to be examined in more detail. What do editors look for in a scientist’s reputation? Who do they ask for recommendations?

Nature will now include a gender loop in decisionmaking in the editorial office by asking “Who are the five women I could ask?” There will be internal targets, but no quotas. There seems to be some apprehension about the extra work that may be incurred. The Nature editorial does not vouch for NPG stablemates like Nature Neuroscience and Nature Cell Biology, journals that may be failing researchers too.

Nature editors were involved in the GenSet Gender in Science Consensus Report, which should be compulsory reading for all scientists. The candidness now from Nature is certainly a step in the right direction, but more forceful leadership and reparation is needed to correct more than 140 years of hidden sexism in science.

The original editorial can be found here: Nature’s sexism. Nature. Vol. 491, 495