• Wed. Apr 14th, 2021


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Scientific Journals Commit to Diversity, but Lack the Data

On June 16, three weeks after the killing of George Floyd set off a wave of protests that would blaze across the globe, Joël Babdor received an unexpected email.

It was an invitation for Dr. Babdor, an immunologist at the University of California, San Francisco, to write a blog post to share his “personal experience as a Black man in academia,” the email said. The sender was a marketing manager from Springer Nature, a company that publishes Nature and thousands of other scientific journals. Springer Nature most likely needed little introduction, the email noted to Dr. Babdor, “since you have published with us before.”

Dr. Babdor recalled being excited and flattered by the message. But then, he said, “I started to spiral.”

Three years prior, he had been a first author on a paper published in Nature Immunology, a highly respected journal. But even after nearly a decade in his field, Dr. Babdor could not name more than a few other Black immunologists. He couldn’t help but wonder how much of an anomaly he was.

“Are they contacting all their Black authors?” he mused of Springer Nature. “I was like, ‘How many of us are there?’”

Dr. Babdor posed the question to the company, but it had no answers; it kept no database of Black scientists who had published in Springer Nature journals.

Neither do many other prominent academic publishers in the life sciences.

When asked by The New York Times to provide data on the racial and ethnic diversity of researchers publishing on their platforms, several journals or journal families that deal in the biosciences — including Cell Press, eLife, JAMA Network, the Lancet, PLoS, PNAS, the New England Journal of Medicine and Springer Nature — said that they did not keep tabs on these metrics, or had no numbers to share. A few publishers said that they were early in the process of collecting this data, or had begun discussing the possibility, but could not yet disclose details.

The paucity of data rang a discordant tone, experts said, in the wake of editorials and commentaries published by these journals in recent months that pledged to combat racism in science and medicine.

“They were making those statements from even less of a grounded place than I thought,” said Ambika Kamath, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “What does it mean to say ‘I’m in favor of diversity’ when you haven’t even reckoned with what the state of diversity is in your own institution?”

Only two organizations, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Society, provided data on its authors, as well as on their reviewers — the outside experts that vet manuscripts en route to publication, and who can make or break their success. But the data provided from these two pools of authors and reviewers, which was collected by voluntary surveys, accounted for only about 10 to 20 percent of the people who had recently contributed to the journals. And what little data was available revealed a familiar skew.

Two-thirds of the authors and reviewers who reported their race or ethnicity to A.A.A.S., which publishes the Science family of journals, listed themselves as white. People identifying as Black, Latino, Indigenous or Native together composed less than 10 percent of these groups. (Pacific Islanders were grouped together with Asians; this category accounted for roughly one-quarter of authors and reviewers.)

At the Royal Society, which is based in Britain and publishes annual diversity reports, about 75 to 80 percent of the authors and reviewers who responded to the institution identified as white. The remainder of the scientists were grouped together as “Black and minority ethnic.”

American Association for the Advancement of Science

A study of the association’s authors and reviewers found:

Asian or Pacific Islander

Hispanic, multi-racial, Native American or other




The Royal Society

Only 9 percent of authors who contributed to the society’s journals responded to a survey:

“Black and minority ethnic”

Other gender

American Association for

the Advancement of Science

A study of the association’s authors and reviewers found:

Asian or Pacific Islander

Hispanic, multi-racial, Native American or other



The Royal Society

Only 9 percent of authors who contributed to the society’s journals responded to a survey:

“Black and minority ethnic”

By The New York Times

Sudip Parikh, the chief executive of A.A.A.S., cautioned against over-interpreting what little data existed. “The data is meaningless right now,” he said. Still, the association decided to publish what data it had, Dr. Parikh said, because “transparency can lead to accountability.”

Other experts noted that a more complete data set would have been unlikely to showcase much more racial and ethnic diversity. People who identify as white and Asian still make up the vast majority of Americans who earn doctorates each year, according to the National Science Foundation.

“This is not at all reflective of the demographics of broader society,” said Cassandra Extavour, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. “But it is highly representative of the demographics of academia.”

Credit…Martin Shields/Alamy

A.A.A.S. also reported that nearly 90 percent of the people who had received awards and honors from the organization — a nomination-based process — identified as white.

“That was a punch in the gut,” said Bianca Jones Marlin, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. “It does not correlate with the amazing work in those that should be honored.”

Studies continue to reaffirm that diversity — on a multitude of axes — boosts performance and the quality of work across disciplines. Science is no exception. Only researchers as diverse as the people and phenomena they study, experts said, can accurately capture the dizzying amount of variation in the natural world and innovate beyond it. Scientists who hail from across spectra of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and more are also uniquely equipped to collaborate with communities that have been ignored, silenced or even exploited and abused by the discriminatory practices of Western scientists.

“Better science is accomplished with more diverse perspectives,” said Martha Muñoz, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University. “How many discoveries are we missing out on?”

A.A.A.S., the Royal Society and PLoS also provided some figures on racial and ethnic diversity among their employees, including the editors who shepherd scientific papers through the publication process. Close to 90 percent of the members of the Royal Society’s editorial boards were white. Among editors employed in the United States by PLoS, 74 percent were white; none identified as Black. Roughly 80 percent of A.A.A.S. leadership, editors and advisers were white.

In an editorial published in June, the eLife editor in chief, Michael B. Eisen, wrote, “The entire leadership team of eLife is white.” Another editorial, released by the editors of the journal Cell just weeks later, said: “We are 13 scientists. Not one of us is Black.”

Publishing papers in top-tier journals is crucial scholastic currency. But the process is deeply insular, often hinging on personal connections between journal editors and the researchers from whom they solicit and receive manuscripts.

“Science is publicized as a meritocracy: a larger, data-driven enterprise in which the best work and the best people float to the top,” Dr. Extavour said. In truth, she added, universal, objective standards are lacking, and “the access that authors have to editors is variable.”

To democratize this process, editors and reviewers need to level the playing field, in part by reflecting the diversity that journals claim they seek, Dr. Kamath said. “People think this is a cosmetic or surface issue,” she said. “But in reality, the very nature of your scholarship would change if you took diversity, equity and inclusion seriously.”

In responses to The Times, several organizations, including A.A.A.S., Cell Press, the Lancet and PLoS, pointed to ongoing efforts to track and boost equitable gender representation in science. Of the journals who kept tabs on these trends, many had hired women into leadership and editor positions. But where reported, authors and reviewers who identified as male still outnumbered their female colleagues — and not all organizations offered a nonbinary option. (Publishing rates among women have also fallen since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.)

Other journals largely skirted questions.

Jim Michalski, a senior public information officer at JAMA, did not provide data on the company’s employees, instead inviting The Times in an email “to visit our websites and assess the diversity of all aspects of the leadership of each JAMA Network journal, including Editors in Chief, Deputy Editors, Editorial Boards, etc.”

After evaluating some of the publishers’ written responses to The Times, Dr. Crystal Wiley Cené, a physician and health equity researcher at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, said, “I really questioned whether I would submit my work there again.”

The barriers raised to people of color in academia — often referred to as an ivory tower — arise early and often. “There is this false narrative that to achieve diversity, we have to compromise on excellence,” Dr. Muñoz said.

Keolu Fox, a human genome scientist at the University of California, San Diego, recalled being put down by a peer after receiving top marks on a prestigious fellowship during graduate school. “Another student saw my score, and he was like, ‘Oh man, I wish I could have borrowed your brownness for my application package,’” said Dr. Fox, who is Native Hawaiian. “That crushed me.”

Alison Mudditt, the chief executive of PLoS, said her organization was now prioritizing collecting more demographic data from its journals’ contributors. But she added that regulations around privacy, which can affect how such data is collected and stored and can differ between countries, would inevitably bog down the process.

Journals will also need to address low response rates among the contributors they survey, Dr. Marlin, of Columbia University, said. Poorly framed questionnaires could be interpreted as diminishing or even exploiting the people they are targeted to. “People need to hear, ‘We’re not going to use this against you,’” she said.

Some scientists are trying to encourage publishers to speed the process along. Dr. Babdor, for instance, is leading the charge behind #BlackInImmunology week, a celebration of Black immunologists that will take place at the end of November. In the lead-up to the event, the team will be approaching journals and publishers to request that they begin to collect and report more diversity data.

“We share similar goals,” Dr. Babdor said. “It’s time to start this conversation.”

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