eLife Latest: Update on our actions to promote equity, diversity and inclusion

In the first of what will be twice-yearly reports, we outline the progress and ongoing work at eLife to tackle inequalities in research and publishing.
Inside eLife
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2020 was a sobering year that, among its myriad challenges, shed renewed light on the inequalities that pervade society, including science. 2021 must be the year that we all follow through on our commitments to tackle those inequalities.

Increasing equity in science and medicine has always been part of eLife’s ambitions for improving the conditions for research communication. However, it is clear that, in this domain, we have not lived up to our aspirations.

Last summer we committed to action in three statements and, over the subsequent months, have set in motion a comprehensive program to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in all that eLife does. We want our efforts to lead to lasting change, and to ensure that these values become embedded in our policies and practises. We have also invited the community to help hold us to account and, to facilitate that, we offer here the first of what will be twice-yearly reports on our plans and progress. So far, our focus has encompassed:

  • Establishing best practices for diversity data collection and reporting
  • Diversifying the eLife editorial board
  • Increasing involvement of early-career reviewers
  • Limiting bias and fostering inclusion
  • Implementing a learning and development plan
  • Improving the diversity of the Executive Team and Governing Board

Questions and comments are welcome. Please feel free to share your feedback using the annotation tool or via email: edi@elifesciences.org. Anonymous feedback may also be shared via this form.

Report prepared by:
Stuart King, Research Culture Manager
Jennifer Gibson, Head of Open Research Communication.


Establishing best practices for diversity data collection and reporting

The lack of meaningful and accurate data on the makeup of our communities both impairs our ability to identify and remedy inequalities and biases, and to report on our progress. It also leads to apathy by making it too easy to believe we are succeeding where we may have not. As such, we have prioritised changing how we collect demographic data, since we believe these projects have the greatest potential to unlock further actions.

Historically, we have collected and reported some data on the extent to which different groups are represented within eLife staff, editors, authors, reviewers and other communities; but this has not been conducted in a systematic or consistent way.

Approach: To harmonise our processes, we have designed a standard list of questions and mechanisms that will allow individuals in our various communities to voluntarily report their personal characteristics. As demographic data is inherently personal, we are approaching data collection with the utmost sensitivity.

This is a work in progress. There are complex factors that must be considered, especially the different ways different aspects of individual identity are described and conceived of in different cultures and nations. We will continue to learn and research best practices (as much as they exist) and are collaborating with other publishers to accelerate our progress.

Next Steps: Before our next report, we plan to:

  • Launch a new form with our editors to collect self-reported demographic data
  • Publish a report on the diversity of our editorial board, including how it has changed in response to initiatives to increase diversity, see below
  • Update the questions we ask authors following submissions, to begin collecting data on race and ethnicity, in addition to career stage and gender
  • Begin collecting data on the career stage, gender, race and ethnicity of reviewers


Diversifying the eLife editorial board

The make-up of a journal’s editorial board can heavily influence decisions, and biases in the composition of the board almost certainly result in biases at all levels of the editorial process. For example, our previous analysis of peer review at eLife has suggested that diverse panels of editors and reviewers assessing manuscripts leads to fairer decisions for authors. As such, we aspire to have an editorial board that both reflects the diverse, international research communities that we serve, and provides opportunities for participation to people traditionally excluded from editorial decisions at influential journals.

Approach: We have restructured our editor recruitment process, placing it under the direct control of a dedicated member of staff, and empowering them to prioritise diversifying the board in their efforts. In recent years, when adding new editors to grow and broaden the expertise of our board – for example, in medicine – we have consciously worked to also improve the board’s representation in terms of career stage, gender, geography and race. As some early results, in 2020, we welcomed more early-career reviewers onto our editorial board and recruited Black scientists as both new Senior and Reviewing Editors. We will share more detail on our progress in this area following the collection of self-reported data from our editors, as set out above.

As it is clear that the method we traditionally have used to recruit new editors – asking existing editors for recommendations – has tended to perpetuate biases in our board, we have made the decision to recruit new editors through open calls to apply. To support this, we will revisit and formalise our criteria for participation on the editorial board, and ensure we are taking a broad approach to assessing each individual’s qualifications to serve, following recommendations from organisations such as DORA where applicable.

In the longer term, we are also seeking to expand our scope to cover research areas that have traditionally been undervalued in the global North, and those preferentially pursued by minority and minoritised scientists.

Next Steps: Before our next report, we will have:

  • Established ambitious targets for improved representation of currently underrepresented groups, based on the self-reported data from our editors
  • Announced a schedule for open calls aimed at meeting those targets
  • Publicised the criteria for participation on our editorial board


Increasing involvement of early-career reviewers

Early-career researchers are, as a group, more diverse than the rest of the researcher community and, as such, greater involvement of early-career reviewers has the potential to increase diversity throughout the organisation. We also know that early-career researchers gaining first-hand experience of the peer review benefits both them and us alike.

Addressing the unique pressures faced by early-career researchers has been emphasised by eLife from even before its first papers were published, and we have an Early-Career Advisory Group (ECAG) to help guide our policies in this regard.

Approach: Although eLife has taken steps to better integrate early-career researchers into the review process and to implement other recommendations of our ECAG, progress has been slow and incomplete. A major goal of 2021 is to better integrate the ECAG into eLife so that its members have a better opportunity to influence editorial and organisational planning and decision making.

Several ECAG-initiated projects have been implemented and continue to be improved. In 2016 we created an early-career reviewer pool that has now amassed over 550 members; more than 180 of whom peer-reviewed at least one eLife submission in 2020 alone. We plan to use the opportunity of our shift to a "publish, then review" model to both expand the group and widen its engagement in peer review. Our particular emphasis in the near term will be to work with our communities to expand the database of early-career reviewers in medicine, and to include early-career editors from the very beginning of this new section of the journal.

Since October 2020, we have sponsored PREReview's Open Reviewers Program pilot (which will run until March 2021) and plan to build on this in the future to facilitate training and mentoring opportunities for members of the eLife and wider community of early-career reviewers. Our early-career advisors and editorial leadership are working together to develop additional opportunities for early-career researchers to be involved in eLife’s review process.

Next Steps: In time for our next report, we aim to have:

  • Developed and begun implementing a plan for better integration of the ECAG
  • Expanded our database of early-career reviewers in medicine
  • Implemented new policies, tools or initiatives to further the involvement of early-career researchers in peer review


Limiting bias and fostering inclusion

Diverse teams, with individuals from different backgrounds, are routinely less biased, more innovative and more effective at solving problems. This has been seen in research as it has elsewhere. However, differences in language use, cultural norms and perceptions can make working in heterogeneous teams challenging. Effort is required – from both individuals and organisations – to make sure that the individual people who make up diverse teams are supported and can work together effectively.

For us, these issues impact not only our peer review and how decisions are reached during consultative review, but interactions within and between our communities as well (for example between editors and early-career researchers, and on social media).

Approach: Following our analysis of our peer review process, introduced above, we have routinely asked our editors to aim for diversity when selecting reviewers to invite, and provide similar instructions for authors to consider when they are suggesting potential reviewers since May 2019. We will now evaluate how effective these recommendations have been, using our existing data related to reviewer geography to explore any trends. We will pursue this area in more depth once we have a clear picture of the demographics of our reviewer pool with input from self-reported data.

As we diversify and work across different groups and cultures, again, in editorial processes and among communities, we have identified that we would benefit from a common set of participation guidelines. The intent is to adopt a shared commitment to expressing respect, communicating clearly and trying to build understanding – as well as to provide a resource to support these behaviours. We expect these guidelines to inform expectations for engagement on social media and other fora. A draft is currently being circulated among our staff, editorial and early-career advisor communities and will be formally put into place next quarter.

Finally, we are committed to continue to act whenever there is a clear path to better support underrepresented and underserved groups in science. For example, in November 2020, we announced a new trans-inclusive policy which enables authors, editors and reviewers to retroactively change their name on papers published in eLife.

Next Steps: In time for our next report, we aim to have:

  • Implemented a standard set of participation guidelines for our editors, early-career advisors and executive team
  • Analysed our existing data of the geographic distribution of reviewers over time


Implementing a learning and development plan

The eLife team is limited by our experiences and bias as others are. We need to educate ourselves to try and better understand the inequities faced by members of our community, and to help eradicate them. We want to feel confident and empowered to understand and address issues limiting equity, diversity and inclusion.

Approach: We plan to take on a program for learning and development for the whole organisation, and for helping to monitor progress toward changing how we work. We are assessing our needs now and defining desired outcomes for such a program, which we expect to take several years to be fully realised. At the same time, we feel there are a variety of steps we can take individually and collectively to learn more, and will encourage the team to take the time to share information and support each other; for example, as we have done in the past via internal events to mark occasions such as LGBTQ+ STEM Day.

Next Steps: By the time we report on our progress again, we aim to have:

  • Initiated training for eLife leadership
  • Introduced the first elements of our learning plan


Improving the diversity of the Executive Team and Governing Board

For all the reasons already outlined above, we believe that striving for greater diversity among our executive staff and Board of Directors is not only morally the right thing to do but also crucial for us to be able to achieve our mission of reforming research communication on a global scale.

Approach: We are developing a vision for improving the diversity of our staff and directors, and aim to have this agreed in early 2021. Our vision will include a plan to move towards gender pay parity.

Next Steps: In time for our next report, we aim to have:

  • Finalised our vision for improving the diversity of our staff and Board of Directors
  • Identified actions to reduce our gender pay gap