Media Briefings

GENDER DIFFERENCES IN PEER REVIEW: Economics papers by women are stalled longer at journals – but they end up more readable and more improved

  • Published Date: April 2017

Research papers with female authors spend six months longer in peer review at the top economics journals, according to research by Erin Hengel, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017. In what appears to be a consequence, papers by women are easier to read and improve more as they are being revised than papers written by men.

The study conducts readability analysis on every paper published in the top four journals since 1950, and finds that female-authored papers have been routinely held to higher standards than articles written by men. Abstracts were between 1% and 6% more readable than those by men, and comparing an article’s working paper with its published version, the readability gap was three times larger for women than for men. The readability of women’s writing improved more too: between an author’s first and third published articles, the readability gap was 12% more for women than for men.

The author speculates that the higher readability of women’s articles might be the result of unconscious bias among reviewers, who demand more revisions from female authors. Higher standards impose a quantity versus quality trade-off: unequal time spent making revisions leads to unequal time conducting new research and potentially justifies lower pay and promotion rates.

The author concludes: ‘If my findings are applicable more broadly, higher standards may account for general instances of lagging female productivity and wages.’

More…

Using five well-known measures of writing clarity, I show that female-authored articles published in top economics journals are better written than equivalent papers by men. I explore many interpretations – for example, are women more sensitive to criticism? Are they disproportionately native English speakers? Is better writing due to risk aversion?

The only straightforward explanation consistent with the data, however, is that referees apply higher standards to women’s writing. Because better writing takes effort to compose, higher standards prolong female review time – by an estimated six months – and likely contribute to lower publishing rates. Tougher standards applied more broadly reduce women’s output; ignoring them undervalues female labour and may confound estimates of gender discrimination.

Prior research has shown that academic journals publish men’s and women’s papers at comparable rates – but are they reviewed with comparable scrutiny? Since women are stereotypically assumed less capable at mathematics, logic and reasoning than men and generally need more evidence to rate as equally competent, some referees might (unknowingly) inspect their papers more closely, demand a larger number of revisions and, in general, be less tolerant of complicated, dense writing.

Complicated, dense writing is my focus: do reviewers require clearer, more concise writing from women than they do men? To answer this question, I analyse the readability of every article abstract published in the top four economics journals since 1950.

I find systematic evidence that journal referees are indeed more critical of women’s writing. First, female-authored abstracts are 1-6% more readable than those by men. Women write better despite controls for editor, journal, year and field; that remains unchanged when including proxies for article and author quality.

Second, the gender readability gap widens precisely while papers undergo peer review. I compare an article’s working paper version with its final, published version; the gap is three times larger for the latter.

Third, women’s writing gradually gets better but men’s does not. Between author’s first and third published articles, the readability gap increases by 12%. Evidence does not suggest senior female economists co-author with more women. Nor are initially bad female writers leaving academia. Instead, women – and only women – seem to figure out that writing well makes peer review smoother; they write subsequent papers clearer from the start.

Clearer sentences, less jargon and more scrutiny aren’t bad things. Papers that are easier to understand enjoy wider, more diverse readership; closer review catches logical mistakes and leads to fewer factual errors.

Still, extra attention isn’t costless: adding robustness checks, clarifying proofs and making sentences even marginally more readable takes time. This prolongs peer review directly – referees spend more time evaluating women’s papers and women spend more time responding – and indirectly – female authors take longer drafting future papers.

My estimate of the direct effect suggests female-authored papers spend six months longer in peer review. This estimate is highly significant, consistent across a range of specifications and, in addition to other relevant factors, controls for motherhood and giving birth.

Higher standards impose a quantity versus quality trade-off that may explain academia’s ‘Publishing Paradox’. Unequal time spent making revisions leads to unequal time conducting new research and potentially justifies lower pay and promotion rates. If applicable more broadly, higher standards may account for general instances of lagging female productivity and wages.

ENDS


Publishing while Female: Gender Differences in Peer Review Scrutiny
Erin Hengel
Lecturer in Economics
University of Liverpool
@erinhengel
erin.hengel@liverpool.ac.uk

(1) See, for example Foschi, M. (1996). ‘Double Standards in the Evaluation of Men and Women’. Social Psychology Quarterly 59(3), pp. 287--254.
(2) See, for example Azmat, G. and R. Ferrer (2016). ‘Gender Gaps in Performance: Evidence from Young Lawyers’. Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).