Isis submissions and gender

A report to the membership from the Co-Editors of the History of Science Society.

Within weeks of the pandemic-enforced closures of universities, reports began circulating that women’s scholarly productivity was being directly and disproportionately affected. At first anecdotal, these accounts quickly acquired data that affirmed a general trend across the spectrum of academic disciplines: that female researchers were abruptly submitting fewer journal articles than they had been relative to previous years, and relative to their male counterparts.

Many of the root causes of this apparent decline were obvious. Women in and out of academia are disproportionately burdened with the care of children, the sick, and the elderly—responsibilities which only increase during a public health crisis. In both history and other fields, women are more likely to work as contingent faculty, or in academic jobs where research work is a low priority in a crisis.

Was Isis similarly affected? The short answer is yes. The better answer involves an acknowledgement of what we do and don’t know about our contributors and the factors that have affected them during the pandemic. Isis has not asked authors to provide information about their gender or other demographic categories—a policy which had been under active discussion recently, even before the pandemic hit. (See our June issue’s “Open Conversation” section on diversity within our discipline.)

In order to gauge whether our contributors were being affected along gender lines by the pandemic, we reluctantly reinstituted a past practice to establish gender data: assumptions based on gender presentation in person or on the internet. To say that we are uncomfortable with assigning—and, in some cases, quite likely mis-assigning—binary gender in this fashion is an understatement. We will have more to say shortly about our plans for what demographic data we collect going forward.

Isis is, in statistical terms at least, a small journal. During our five-year term we will oversee the publication of perhaps 80 articles, the product of seven to ten times as many submissions. Our sample size during the period in question does not allow, by general reckoning, for statistically rigorous conclusions. Nevertheless, what we see here accords with the trend that other journals have observed. Female and male authors submitted original papers in equal numbers in January and February, and afterwards male authors outnumbered female authors by more than three to one.

Table 1. Article manuscript submissions for the period January 1 – June 30, 2020

 Male authorsFemale authorsTotal authorsTotal manuscripts
Original submitted, Jan 1-Feb 2910102019
Original submitted, Mar 1-June 3030104032
Resubmissions, Jan 1-Feb 294155
Resubmissions, Mar 1-June 301582314
Total59298870

Table 2. Current Status on August 1, 2020

 Male authorsFemale authorsTotal authorsTotal manuscripts
Currently under review21103128
Desk rejected1431715
Rejected7296
Invited to revise and resubmit2576
Accepted (including pending revisions)1592415
Total59298870

Most manuscripts were single-authored, but not all, which affects the tabulation. For example, one accepted manuscript had five male and three female authors. For comparison, see the tables at the end of this document for the data from the previous six-month period, the first six months under our co-editorship.

We can add our own anecdotal experience to these numbers. Many of the people whose work is required to produce an issue of Isis—that is to say, referees, book reviewers and invited contributors as well as manuscript authors—have declined invitations or asked us to extend deadlines explicitly as a result of the pandemic. Of those specifically citing childcare responsibilities, the overwhelming majority were women. Beyond that, we can’t offer specific insights about the underlying reasons for the gender skew the pandemic seems to have generated within our ambit. We can only offer our general sense that the consensus view is correct that such a thing is happening, that it is exacerbating the existing structural inequalities, and intersecting with race- and class-based marginalization.

We also reviewed invited contributions. Most of these are book reviews, but this category also includes authors of pieces in special sections (Focus, Second Look, Open Conversations, and so forth), essay reviews, Eloges, and printed lectures. Here, because of the rhythm of the publishing calendar, the data was even more muddled but also hints at where gender equity gets skewed.

Between January 1 and June 30, for example, the Book Review Editor invited 120 female and 119 male scholars to review recently published works.  Between January 1 and March 1 of 2020, nearly twice as many female scholars accepted invitations to review books for Isis. After March 1, men accepted invitations over women at a rate of 4 to 3. After March 1, male scholars submitted twice as many book reviews as female scholars. In other words, for the six month period in which male and female scholars were invited at the same rate, twice as many book reviews were submitted by men. By our count 112 men and 53 women agreed to contribute book reviews over the entire first six months of the year. To us, this data suggests that the internal protocols for inviting book reviewers is sound and factors outside our control are affecting who accepts invitations and who submits finished material.

Likewise, in the long special sections (which in this period featured 16 different contributors), we strive to secure an inclusive list of contributors that represent the gender, racial, ethnic, geographic, and career diversity of the HSS membership. Counting “men” and “women” at this level of abstraction makes it difficult to offer firm assessments of the data, especially without hearing substantive and consistent explanations for why people decline invitations or choose not to submit article manuscripts.

That said, our sense from this necessarily anecdotal evidence is that the effect of the pandemic on the number of women who accepted such invitations was less than what we observe in terms of article manuscript submissions. This may be because it is less burdensome to write a book review than a whole manuscript. But that, too, is a cautionary note. It is rewarding in some ways to write a book review: there is satisfaction at contributing to the conversation in your area of expertise, and you get a free book. But articles are still the coin of the realm where promotions and tenure decisions are concerned.

Armed with this knowledge—however qualitative and problematically derived—what should we do next? That is emphatically something we want the membership’s input on. Nevertheless, with the effects of the pandemic likely to ring through academia for years even after the immediate threat passes, it’s worth restating some things for the benefit of those scholars who might consider submitting their work to Isis.

First, our purpose in publishing scholarly work of significance in the history of science is absolutely indistinguishable from that of nurturing the work of scholars across the breadth of our society’s membership. We cannot create article submissions ex nihilo, but we can and will redouble our efforts to make the editorial process as efficient and helpful as possible for those who do send us their manuscripts. Please be assured that we will do everything within our power to render decisions quickly, with an ecumenical eye towards the ever-changing boundaries of our discipline. We’d also like to emphasize our flexibility with respect to revisions: we do not impose deadlines on authors whose work is invited for resubmissions, something we hope will be helpful for scholars now facing additional demands on their time and energy.

Now to pivot to our thoughts about moving forward. We initially paused the collection of this data when we took over as Co-Editors in July of 2019 because we believed the Society needed to engage in a thorough discussion of how such data was being collected, and what should to be done with it. The early contours of this discussion resulted in the June 2020 Open Conversations section. As messy and muddled as the data is, we are willing to organize and present it publicly on a yearly basis, should the membership desire it. We firmly believe that if we collect this data, it must be available to be thoughtfully engaged with by the entire membership—and not just the HSS Women’s Caucus, who initially pushed for the collection of this data many years ago.

We are now collaborating with the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion to participate in a series of “Virtual Town Halls” this fall to discuss issues of diversity, demographics, and the HSS publications. The pandemic has thrown into stark relief uncomfortable truths about the role of gender in Isis. We want to develop strategies for meaningful and concrete change in our discipline. Please join us.

Table 3. Article manuscript submissions for the period July 1 – December 31, 2019

 Total manuscriptsMale authorsFemale authorsTotal authors
Original submitted, July 1 – December 3163483078
Resubmissions, July 1 – December 31139514
All article manuscript submissions76573592

Table 4. Editorial status on December 31, 2019

 Total manuscriptsMale authorsFemale authorsTotal authors
Under review1101
Desk rejected1914519
Rejected1711819
Invited to revise and resubmit27231639
Accepted (including pending revisions)96410
Withdrawn3224
Total76573592