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Ethnicity Bias in Evolutionary Biology Research
The scientific community is often under fire for lack of diversity and opportunities in academia for women and non-white ethnic groups. Peer reviewed journals are regarded as the gold standard for the dissemination of high quality scientific research. In the peer review process, submitted papers are scrutinised by experts in the same field ensuring that only research of a good standard reaches publication. Although this system has been integral for the development of modern science, on several occasions it has been shown to be biased. For example, journals have been reported to pressure reviewers into accepting work from distinguished scientists despite questions over scientific quality. There are also claims that there is potential for journals to be prejudiced towards particular ethnicities. As a part of my Computational Methods in Ecology and Evolution MRes mini-project, I wanted to look into this troubling issue within the field of evolutionary biology.
The impact factor of a journal is often used as the metric to measure the quality of a journal; the higher the impact factor, the more prestigious. Prestigious journals could perhaps afford to be more discriminative towards particular ethnic groups than journals with lower impact factors. To test this question, I identified the ethnicity of the authors of all papers submitted to evolutionary biology journals in 2015.
To identify the ethnicity of these 21,571 authors, I was kindly offered academic license access to Ononlytics (https://onolytics.com/). This program allows the user to classify names into categories of cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups, based on the probable origins of their names. The largest demographic were names of a British Isles origin, a predominantly white and English speaking population, which accounted for 39% of the total authorship. This demographic was then compared to the journals impact factor for 2015.
A significant positive correlation was found between a journals impact factor and the proportion of the authorship that had a name from a British origin. This, however, raises several new questions. Are authors whose names are not of a British Isles origin being discriminated against at the paper selection level, or is there another part of the academic system that makes it more challenging for these authors to be recognised by higher impacting journals, such as, access to funding or leading research institutions. Further research is required to look at a broader range of scientific journals and time to help address some these questions.