Women are less likely to get papers accepted for publication in chemistry journals than their male colleagues are, an analysis of more than 700,000 manuscripts submitted to the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has found.

The society analysed the given names of authors who submitted papers to RSC journals between January 2014 and July 2018, to determine their gender. Almost 36% of the authors were women, but only around 23% of papers that were accepted for publication had female corresponding authors. The report, Is Publishing in the Chemical Sciences Gender Biased?, was published on 5 November.

The RSC, which has its headquarters in London, concluded that there is “a complex interaction of subtle biases occurring throughout the publishing pipeline, which combine to put women at a disadvantage when disseminating their research”.

The report also found that when women do publish, their papers get fewer citations on average than do those with male corresponding authors (see ‘Gender gap’). And the analysis revealed that although papers with male corresponding authors cite more articles than do those led by women, they are less likely to cite papers with female corresponding authors.

“It is apparent that the gender gap manifests at every stage of the publishing process — choice of journal, editorial decisions, referees’ decisions and even citations,” says David Smith, a chemist at the University of York, UK, who is a member of the RSC’s inclusion and diversity committee. “This suggests something is systematically wrong.”

Source: Royal Society of Chemistry

Molly King, a sociologist at Santa Clara University in California, says some of the report’s results align with her own work on gender disparities in academic publishing. She and her colleagues have found that female researchers in various disciplines are significantly under-represented in the prestigious first and last positions of an author list1, and that male academics are 70% more likely than female academics to cite their own publications2.

“Even though gender gaps may seem small individually, they add up over 30–40-year careers and across stages of the publishing pipeline,” King says.

Pervasive problem

The RSC is not the first publisher to find evidence of gender bias. Last year, a report by the publishing arm of the Institute of Physics in Bristol, UK, found that papers with female corresponding authors have a slightly lower chance of being accepted than do papers with male corresponding authors.

And an analysis of 30,000 submissions to the biomedical journal eLife, uploaded to the preprint server bioRxiv in 2018, found3 that reviewers tend to favour manuscripts from authors of the same gender. This adds to the bias in science publishing, the report said, because women tend to be under-represented as journal editors and independent peer reviewers.

The RSC notes that its analysis is limited because its methods made assumptions about authors’ gender, and could assign gender only in binary terms. People with unknown gender were removed from the data set.

But the society says it will take action to address gender bias, including offering unconscious-bias training to its editorial staff and recruiting more female peer reviewers and editorial-board members.

“Improving inclusion in publishing should ultimately give rise to better science,” says Smith.