Racial Biases in the Publication Process: Exploring Expressions and Solutions

Racial inequality and systemic racism are focal points of attention in many countries around the world. In the United States, for instance, these issues have come into sharp focus through responses to police violence against Black Americans and growing concerns with hate crimes against Asian Americans amidst racial rhetoric sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. Racial biases are far from new, however. They have a long history in society and in organizations (Cox & Nkomo, 1990) and gained a new layer of meaning during recent years. As management scholars, race and racial diversity in organizations are important aspects of our research domain. We know that racial bias, prejudice, and discrimination can stand in the way of equal employment opportunity and career advancement, can make organizations a less hospitable place to work, and can disrupt the performance of racially diverse teams and work groups (Colella, Hebl, & King, 2017; Jones, Peddie, Gilrane, King, & Gray, 2016). In most of the Western world, racial biases give White people both explicit and implicit advantages over people from other racial backgrounds. The way these advantages and privileges operate through structures and practices in organizations and educational institutions is widely documented (e.g., Amis, Mair, & Munir, 2020; Dipboye & Colella, 2005). What seems to be less on our collective radar as management researchers is that racial biases may also play out in our publication process. The Journal of Management invited us to reflect on such biases in the publication process in this guest editorial.

The nature of our work is such that unless we are involved as author, reviewer, editor, or close colleague, the publication process for a particular paper remains hidden from sight. We only see a paper after it is published—and are unlikely to see it if it is not—and we do not know the nature of reviews, editor feedback, and previous versions that culminated in the paper as published. Moreover, because papers are processed on a case-by-case basis and each paper is unique, it may not be readily apparent that some issues in the review process are expressions of biases (all the more so because such biases often operate outside of conscious awareness). Differential treatment of papers based on research questions, samples used, and backgrounds of the authors—issues that are intertwined where race and diversity are concerned because research topics are often informed by personal experience and reflected in the samples needed to study them—may remain unnoticed because the necessary comparisons across papers and author teams that could reveal those biases do not systematically occur.

In this guest editorial, we consider the occurrence of racial biases in the publication process as they express themselves in differential treatments of and responses to submissions (new and revised) as a function of research questions and research samples that may invite assumptions (correct as well as incorrect) about the authors’ racial background. It is good to note upfront that our observations are not based on data from systematic research into racial biases in the publication process. They are based on anecdotal evidence from our own experiences and from many of our colleagues who shared similar experiences both through our personal networks and through a session exploring these issues organized by the Academy of Management’s Organizational Behavior Division. While anecdotal, the commonality of these experiences and their thematic consistency with prior reports (e.g., Cox, 1990; King, Avery, Hebl, & Cortina, 2018; Nkomo, 1992) forms a powerful basis to initiate a conversation within the community of management scholars about systemic racial bias in the publication process—a conversation that will not only increase awareness of these issues but hopefully also spark efforts to implement solutions (both individual and organizational) to counter those biases. Thus, the two-fold purpose of this guest editorial is to draw our community’s attention to racial biases in the publication process and to advance potential solutions to counter these biases.

What we see as the core theme in the experiences we drew on for this editorial is the manifestation of a descriptive norm (what is) that has implicitly become an injunctive norm (what should be; Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990): What is typically published in our journals (the descriptive norm) is implicitly taken to reflect what is most worthy of publishing in our journals (the injunctive norm). This is an issue when what is studied covaries with the racial background of authors. Such covariation and biased assessment in the publication process are what we observe both for research questions concerning race and diversity and for research samples that deviate from the samples that are more typical in our main journals—majority White samples from countries in the Western world and particularly Northern America. Research topics and research samples typically published in our journals tend to be more strongly associated with the most influential group in our field of research (as judged by their representation in editor teams and editorial boards; Harzing & Metz, 2012)—predominantly White and predominantly Northern American researchers. To some extent, authors’ racial and regional backgrounds covary with research topics and research samples because our backgrounds influence our research interests as well as from where we draw our research samples. As a result, we create unique hurdles for research topics and samples more strongly associated with people of color inside and outside of Northern America when we judge those submissions implicitly using the descriptive norm of research conducted by the most influential demographic groups as a standard. In effect, this introduces racial biases in the publication process in that such biased responses to research topics and research samples disproportionately affect scholars of color (i.e., the fact that White researchers doing such work may also find themselves on the receiving end of less favorable responses does not change the observation that scholars of color are disproportionally affected). In addition to creating racial inequality in the publication process, favoring a more limited set of research topics and samples also makes our scholarly evidence base more limited than it should be.

The Problem and Its Expressions

In exploring expressions of racial biases in the review process, we saw biases manifest themselves in two ways. First, racial biases are manifested in the ways research topics and samples related to race and diversity are evaluated compared to other research topics. Second, racial biases express themselves in responses to research samples that diverge from the Northern American/Western descriptive norm also when the research topic is not related to race and diversity.

Responses to Research on Race and Diversity

Race and diversity tend to be less favorably received as research topics compared with research less strongly associated with the racial background of authors (King et al., 2018). Author experiences indicate that a recurring theme is that race and diversity as research topics would not be “interesting” or “important” or make a “significant contribution” to theory. This is a comparative observation: It is a critique that authors see much more in response to their research on race and diversity than to their research on other topics.

Concerns about the research samples used often accompany such less favorable assessments of research addressing race and diversity. Studies of race and diversity by necessity typically rely on samples in which some racial groups only form a minority. Although this is a reality of the research population and consistent with the very definition of minority, it often invites the criticism that it reflects a flaw in the sample. Alternatively, when the minority group is oversampled to preempt that critique, reviewers comment that oversampling of minority group members is inappropriate. Given that oversampling may be inappropriate at times, reviewers should accept the reality that groups who are minorities in the societal population will also be minorities in research samples.

This issue also manifests itself in responses to studies of team diversity where the critique often arises that racial diversity is restricted in range in the sample (i.e., ranges from homogeneous to moderately diverse without observations in the higher range of possible diversity scores) and the distribution is skewed (i.e., such that there are relatively few observations at higher diversity values). It would obviously be ideal if a study could sample the full range of possible scores and do so with a normal distribution. Here too, however, study samples reflect the reality of the research population and not flaws in sampling. By the very definition of minority, we can expect that most teams have a larger number of majority group members and that diversity scores fall in the low to moderate range of potential scores. We also see that when researchers rely on more “unusual” samples (in the sense of the frequency with which they are observed in our journals), such as samples with higher proportions of members of racial minorities, it invites critiques on the presumed generalizability of findings. A majority (or all) Black sample seems to invite questions of generalizability that a majority (or all) White sample does not seem to invite. Again, these are comparative observations; authors see such sample critiques much more in reviewer responses to their research on race and diversity than on other topics.

The greater difficulty in publishing research on race and diversity in the main journals of our field is also reflected in the observation that more revisions tend to be required of such studies before they are accepted for publication—if they are accepted for publication—than studies focusing on other areas in management (King et al., 2018). These challenges of publishing research on race and diversity cannot be seen as completely independent of the racial background of the authors. A focus on racial bias and discrimination as a topic of study is often intertwined with its very experience, and as such the importance of this topic may not be readily evident to all. For instance, Black researchers may be more likely than White researchers to study racial biases in organizations because they are likely to be more aware of the pervasiveness and impact of such biases through their own experiences and those of others in their social network. People of color are not strongly represented in the editor and reviewer pool, however, and many editors and reviewers may be less aware of the importance of issues of race and diversity. Thus, as researchers with minority racial backgrounds are more likely to engage in research on race and diversity than researchers with a majority racial background, they are also more likely to be subject to critiques that by implication undermine their research questions and approaches. This is not just an unfortunate side effect of what researchers “happen to be interested in.” It arguably reflects the reality that people who are not on the receiving end of racial biases may underestimate the importance of the research problem. The judgment that race and diversity are not interesting or important to study may be based on a view that does not fully recognize the strong correlations between race and many outcomes in our society. When we accept the importance of the study of these issues, we may also be more open to the research population reality of unequal counts of respondents with different racial backgrounds.

Responses to Research from Outside of Northern America

People generally do not forget their roots when making choices or decisions (Kish-Gephart & Campbell, 2015). Scholars’ social identities and demographic characteristics also covary with the research samples they use. Beyond the influence of the research questions they address, people tend to find their research samples where they live and work or have strong roots. This is an important observation, because research relying on samples different from those typically used in research by the most influential groups in our field is more vulnerable to critiques as a result. For example, our top journals routinely question whether findings generalize to Northern America in reviews of studies relying on samples from outside of Northern America. Moreover, they are more likely to do so for studies relying on data from what would not be considered Western countries.

Studies relying on samples from outside of Northern America or Western countries often face the concern that findings may be culture- or country-specific. This indeed may be true, but the issue is that this concern is not raised universally. Such selective concern with generalizability seems to be particularly evident in evaluating research using Asian samples (we have less insight into how research from Latin America and Africa fares, but the more limited insights we have suggest that such research is also less favorably received than research from Northern America and from Western countries outside of Northern America). Aside from the fact that it is questionable whether we should use research populations from Northern America or Western countries as the “gold standard” to which findings should generalize, such a differential response to samples cannot be seen as independent from the racial background of the researchers. Asian researchers are more likely to conduct studies with Asian samples than non-Asian researchers. As a result, Asian researchers are more likely to face concerns with generalizability of findings than their Western counterparts who are more likely to rely on Western samples. For example, one author notes that reviewers raised questions about whether a more collectivistic culture may have influenced outcomes for a sample that was exclusively Asian, but they had never been asked whether individualism influenced outcomes when Northern American samples were used.

Such biases also show up in questioning the appropriateness of using “Western theory” to study phenomena in an Asian country (note that this labeling is used for theories that are intended to address human behavior, not “Western human behavior”). It can definitely be legitimate for reviewers to raise questions of generalizability and to view limited generalizability as a potential roadblock to publication. The issue here, however, is that these questions are not asked of all samples. That is, the implicit judgment standard seems to favor Northern American/Western samples. This privileges researchers with certain racial backgrounds over others because samples studied covary with researchers’ racial and regional background.

In addition to this inequality in raising generalizability concerns, we also observed indications of unequal treatment of research from outside of Northern America, especially Asia, in concerns expressed about writing quality. There are many examples of how the quality of writing is differentially evaluated as a function of the region of origin of the data. We observed such biases both in the evaluation of language mastery (e.g., stating the need to get a professional copy editor because of the poor quality of expression) and in the assessments of authors’ understanding of how to present the study for the target journal. Notably, authors who have submitted research using both non-English-speaking samples and English-speaking samples see criticisms of the writing surface for their manuscripts using non-English-speaking samples but not for those using English-speaking samples. This suggests that at least in those cases it is the nature of the sample—and presumably the associated conclusions about the racial background of the author team—that inspired the feedback and not the objective quality of the writing.

Again, this cannot be seen as separate from the racial background of the researchers. For obvious reasons, researchers typically draw samples from the region where they are located or from the region in which they have strong roots. Researchers located or with roots outside of Northern America are more likely to draw on samples from outside of Northern America. As a consequence, biases against studies relying on samples from outside of Northern America or Western countries more generally disproportionately affect researchers with roots outside of Northern America or Western countries. Note that this mirrors the issue we see for research within Western countries of differential responses as a function of samples’ racial composition.

Recognizing That “What Is” Does Not Equate to “What Should Be”

We believe that we see in action here the application of an implicit standard based on the fact that research using Western and especially Northern American samples is so strongly represented in our main journals and reflected in the racial and regional roots of the majority of the editors and reviewers of our main journals. This descriptive norm often seems to function as an injunctive norm to privilege researchers with certain racial and regional backgrounds over others. It is unsurprising that such an implicit standard exists in our publishing process given that our field is strongly influenced by White Northern American researchers. Compared to the global community of management researchers, White Northern Americans are more frequently represented in the positions of greatest influence in the publication process—in editor and editorial board positions at our top journals (Harzing & Metz, 2012). Our top journals also have a strong representation of White Northern American authors. This also feeds into the selection of ad hoc reviewers, editorial board members, and editors, which would preferably have experience publishing in the journal. This creates a situation in which White Northern American researchers have a strong influence on the assessment of journal submissions and on the standards for what is interesting and important to study.

This situation has obvious roots in the history of our field. Within the time frame of management as a field of academic research, the United States has been the largest economy in the world, and Western economies more generally have been among the larger economies. This gave rise to management as an academic discipline such that the volume of research in the United States (and the Anglo-Saxon world more generally) was largest and most visible and concentrated in scholarly journals rooted in the United States. This created a situation in which researchers could think of the main journals of our field as journals primarily publishing about management research in Northern America. Indeed, U.S. researchers could think of these journals as national journals (and our experiences also include reviewers’ expression of that very sentiment). Researchers in other countries see the same journals as representing the international gold standard for the publication of management research. For instance, there seems to be reasonable consensus across continents on what the main journals in management are, and this is reflected in standards for tenure, promotion, and hiring decisions around the world.

The world has changed, however, with China projected to become the largest economy in the world in the foreseeable future and India rising fast, and more generally shifts to a more global economy. With these changes, the volume of management research in other parts of the world, and especially Asia, has also grown. This has made it increasingly clear that across continents we mostly study similar things with similar results and that the community of management scholars really is a global community and not a more parochial set of national communities studying things with little relevance outside their own national community. Similar observations hold for a within-country racial diversity perspective. With the rise of management as an academic discipline, management scholars were predominantly White. As we outlined earlier, this can be expected to have its reflection in what was more and less likely to be studied. Societies around the world have grown more racially diverse over the years, and this has also resulted in growing racial diversity in management research. This has given rise to new research questions that have no less legitimacy than those more traditionally studied (i.e., first and foremost those concerning race and diversity) but that are put at a disadvantage when we treat the descriptive norm that reflects these more traditional questions as indicative of what is more worthy of study.

This state of affairs is not just a problem because the advancement of knowledge is limited when that knowledge mainly derives from what one demographic group (those in the majority) finds interesting to study. It is also a problem because these implicit standards rooted in demography create and maintain racial inequality when researchers who are racially, culturally, and geographically different from this dominant demographic group experience hurdles to success in the publication process because of these differences. Inadvertently letting a descriptive norm become an injunctive norm is fundamentally human (i.e., we easily mistake what most people do for what is appropriate and desirable to do), and we outline these issues not to cast blame. Rather, we do so to create awareness that as a field of research we have a problem of racial inequality in the publication process that asks us to focus on solutions to that problem.

Solutions in Countering Racial Biases in the Publication Process

In exploring possible ways to counter racial biases in the publication process, we focus on the publication process narrowly defined as the review process at academic journals—the process from submitting a manuscript for publication to the final decision. This is not to suggest that the problem of racial biases in our research process is limited to the review process. Our experiences indicate that research on race and diversity is often discouraged as early on as when exploring research topics in PhD programs. This may not be surprising given that ample experience suggests that studying race and diversity can put one at a disadvantage on the job market and in the tenure and promotion process. These are issues worthy of attention in and of themselves.

Our focus here is on the review process because this is where we as a research community can take particularly focused and impactful action. We believe that changing these dynamics in the review process can also change the dynamic outside the review process, for instance by increasing the appreciation of race and diversity research in PhD programs and in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. In this respect, it is important to recognize that the review process is what we as an academic community create through our volunteer efforts as editors and reviewers. What we share here are considerations about what we as an academic community must do, not what some abstracted “they” should do.

The first issue to consider is that people who find themselves on the receiving end of racial biases tend to be more aware of the pervasiveness and importance of the issue than people who may only learn about such biases through other people’s experiences. It thus may be important for journals to create awareness of these issues in their editor teams and boards. To do so, it is helpful to document these issues more systematically by drawing on the information that is uniquely available to journals about the papers submitted to the journal. This would include consideration of decision statistics by keyword and geographic location of authors and samples to determine whether certain keywords (i.e., those associated with race and diversity) or certain geographical locations of authors and samples (which are correlated but separate issues) are associated with different acceptance rates or different numbers of revisions required than others. Such statistics could be complemented with data about the racial background of authors and about the issues raised in decision letters (i.e., about the importance of the research question, sample characteristics, generalizability, etc.) to arrive at a sense of the extent to which the issues discussed here can be observed at the journal (see work by Roberts, Bareket-Shavit, Dollins, Goldie, & Mortenson, 2020 for a recent example of such an investigation in psychology journals). Ideally, journals would also pursue transparency in these matters and would see such data as not just for internal use but as something to share with the scholarly community. In raising these issues, we recognize and emphasize that putting such data together comes with workload challenges for the volunteers that run our journals on top of their other duties. Editor teams likely need external support to be able to explore those issues (i.e., volunteer efforts from researchers outside of the journal’s editorial team).

However, awareness backed up by evidence from systematic research only gets us so far (in fact, awareness without structural action realistically gets us nowhere worth going). It would therefore be important to recognize that addressing the issues discussed here must move beyond creating broader awareness of the problem to taking action. A greater representation of editors and reviewers that are not White (Northern American) would seem an obvious goal to pursue in this respect. This would likely introduce into the review process greater diversity of perspectives on what are good research questions and good research samples. Importantly, it would also allow journals to consider a “matching” strategy in which papers submitted by authors who do not have a White Northern American background, in particular, would not have their submissions reviewed only by those with a White Northern American background. This would be particularly important for studies of race and diversity. To accomplish such matching, journals could consider developing algorithms to identify matched sets of reviewers that could potentially be invited for a submission to create IT support for action editors around these issues.

It is also important to realize that fairness of treatment is not just a matter of the “content” of treatment but also of the treatment being applied without discrimination. For instance, it is completely legitimate for journals to ask authors to consider issues of generalizability. However, it would be important to do so through a policy that (i) asks this from all authors regardless of the nature of their sample and (ii) avoids any implicit or explicit suggestion that the question of generalizability is about the extent to which findings generalize to those contexts most frequently studied by the dominant demographic group in our field. The broader point here is that journals can raise whatever issue seems important in judging submission quality, but they should carefully monitor whether raising the issue covaries with author demographics. To reinforce this mindset, journals may also develop guidelines to inform action editors how to deal with such issues in their decision letters when they surface in the review process (e.g., how to address reviewer critique on the fact that minority group members are a minority in the research sample or how findings from an Asian sample generalize to the West).

What this ultimately means is that reviewers—and our scholarly community at large—will have to embrace the conclusion that there is nothing inherent to our science that makes studies inspired by the line of vision of one demographic group more legitimate or important than those inspired by another. Our science is not a science that is defined by geographic region or demography, and we should pursue the advancement of management research as a global effort and not as constrained by nationality or race.

Diversity and Inclusion Beyond Race

In closing, we believe it is important to recognize that treating the research of White Western and especially Northern American researchers as an implicit judgment standard for journal submissions is a reflection of a broader array of systemic biases in our field. Our collective experience suggests that similar biases may be observed based on culture, nationality, and ethnicity more broadly. In a related vein, not only is our field White/Western-dominated, it is also male-dominated. Gender biases giving men a career advantage over women are well-documented (Eagly & Carli, 2007), and one does not need to look far to get a sense of gender biases in reviewer responses to research topics and samples that can put female researchers at a disadvantage. In extension, we may reasonably raise the question whether similar biases would be observed based on other dimensions of differentiation that may correlate with what we study—age, sexual orientation, etc.

In this guest editorial we hope to spark an initial conversation about the pervasiveness and salience of racial biases in the publication process. However, this is only the start of what we hope will be an ongoing process of unpacking and deconstructing bias in academia. What we learn as we work to counter racial inequality can and should be inspiration for developing a broader program for fostering inclusion and embracing diversity in academia. Importantly, this serves to advance our collective mission of generating and disseminating knowledge to improve management theory and practice as it pertains to a broad cross-section of people and organizations globally.


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