Academia’s ‘clans’ behind referees’ bias
Having been an international academic journal editor for 33 years, I read with interest “Male editors ‘more likely to accept papers from other men’” (News, www.timeshighereducation.com, 28 September). When I deal with manuscripts, I strive to be objective, balanced and fair. But my aim is to build a better journal, so I am strict about what I accept for publication. If there are patterns in quality, the contents of the journal will reflect them.
That may seem very simple, but there are two other issues. First, there is a thread of serious bias among referees, which I first noticed in 1985 when I started my editorial role. Willingness to review papers is related to gender, national origin and whether or not European or North American men are among the authors. I termed it “academic racism”: that may be an overstatement, but such bias is certainly part of the “clannishness” of academic life. It is by no means universal, but it is a highly consistent phenomenon.
I find that papers from authors in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and India require more effort to get reviewed. This may be because of a record of poor scholarship in these countries, but it is hard on authors from such places. Fairness means that even second-rate papers need to be reviewed and their shortcomings (gently) pointed out so that the authors can improve their work, which will benefit us all.
The second issue is the pressure that universities put on staff to compete, especially in research outcomes. The result is a failure to help academics elsewhere. Westerners, by and large, are reluctant to give help to African authors. Some good work is coming out of African universities, and it is a struggle to give it the recognition it deserves. It is also a struggle to ensure that Africans feel included in the international research endeavour. It should not be.
The best research should involve collaboration, and exclusionary policies and actions should be reduced. Fostering a community of scholarship means taking positive action to include those who would join it and fairly recognising good work, whoever its author. I fear that that requires a different model of university. David Eric Alexander
Willingness to review papers is related to gender, national origin and whether or not European or North American men are among the authors