In the last few years I have spent a lot of time thinking about, and worrying about, the diversity of people involved in various aspects of the life sciences. One area I have focused on extensively has been presenters at conferences (see some of my posts on this topic on my Tree of Life blog here). In one recent online discussion about a conference I felt was heavily biased towards male speakers, a responder said something to the effect of “Oh yeah, well, what about the diversity of Editorial Board and Advisory Board members at PLOS Biology?” And, well, they were right. We do in fact have a less than ideal sampling of diversity there. Two aspects of diversity in particular are, I think, in need of work – representation of women, and international coverage. So as the new Chair of the PLOS Biology Advisory Board, I have decided that working on this diversity issue will be my main first task.
Fortunately for me, the PLOS Biology team has been not only very receptive to tackling the diversity issue, but has already been developing a plan to tackle it for some time. Our goal for now is relatively simple – increase representation of women and people not from the US on the PLOS Biology Editorial Board and Advisory Board activities. A key question however is – how do we achieve this goal? To answer this it is necessary to figure out where the bottlenecks are in representing diversity in these groups.
Clearly, one possible bottleneck lies in invitations to join the Editorial Board and Advisory Board. The path to becoming a member of the PLOS Biology Editorial Board is relatively simple – the PLOS Biology Editorial team invite new people to serve as Guest Academic Editors (so called Guest AEs) for a few papers. If they do “well” then they can then be invited to be official Editorial Board Members. So – we plan to do targeted Editorial Board recruitments to increase the diversity of people invited to be Guest AEs. For the Advisory Board, the approach is somewhat similar – the PLOS Biology Editors identify what one could call “Super” AEs (labelled as such due to their workload and general commitment to the journal, often going beyond the normal call of duty of Editorial Board members), and these people are invited to join the Advisory Board. We also plan to do targeted recruitments to increase the diversity of those invited to be on the Advisory Board.
But of course, just inviting people is not enough. One needs to get people to (1) hear or see the invitations; (2) to consider the invitations seriously; and (3) to accept them. In my experience in dealing with diversity issues at conferences, it seems that #1 and #2 are actually quite challenging. People are overwhelmed with email and meetings and schedules and responsibilities. So if you just send out a bunch of email invitations to a few extra people, if you only hear back from a small % of people you invite, this may not be too useful. Same with the Editorial Board I suppose. An email that says
“Dear Dr. So and So. We are inviting you to take on a new responsibility that involves extra work for you. In exchange we can offer you no payment and little recognition”
is probably not going to excite some of the key people you want to get involved. So some more personal contact is almost certainly going to help. This of course takes time, and some effort. But it is probably worth it. Fortunately, PLOS Biology is relatively unique in the biology journal world in that the Editorial Board members do little if any of the “grunt work” and can focus on the science. The PLOS Biology Editors handle the main tasks of screening submissions, recruiting Editorial Board members to serve as Academic Editors, and making recommendations for reviewers. The job of the Academic Editors is to advise the staff on whether a paper should be reviewed, and who good reviewers might be. But the invitations to review and the chasing down of reviewers is done by the journal staff. Then, when reviews come back in the PLOS Biology Editorial team read through them, summarize them, and make a recommendation for what to do next. They then consult with the Academic Editors to get their input on the reviews and the recommended course of action. It is actually a relatively pleasant experience for AEs, to tell you the truth. If more people knew how this worked, I have a feeling that more would say yes to invitations to be on the Editorial Board (some more detail on the process is available here: From Academic Editor in Chief to Chair of the Advisory Board: figuring out an official role for me (Jonathan Eisen) at PLoS Biology).
Plus of course another way to get people to say yes is to tell them that there are free to say no for specific requests whenever they are too busy. What you want is for people to want to help you, not to feel they have to help you. In the end, my goal as the Chair of the Advisory Board is to have PLOS Biology serve as a model for strong representation of diversity on it
s various Boards. This may take some work, but it is important work.
And while I am at it, I think I would like to crowdsource this activity by asking for others to help. Do you know strong open science advocates who are also good scientists who might be interested in getting more involved? Are you perhaps such a person? Send me / us the names and any other information by email or post comments here.
Finally, I want to add, that I realize that simply increasing the number of women and international representatives on the various PLOS Biology Boards is not the only aspect of diversity that we can or should tackle at PLOS Biology. But it is a start. And part of the start is to be more open about discussions of these issues. In that regard, if any readers have experience with ways to increase diversity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, or for that matter, other areas of academics, it would be great to hear about it in comments.