Challenging the gender citation gap: what journals can do

Kirsten Ainley, Ida Danewid and Joanne Yao

Defiant placards at the London Women’s March, January 2017.

In recent years, debates about institutional inequities, discrimination, and routine racism and sexism in the academy have picked up speed in the field of IR. It is increasingly recognized that academia can be a hostile environment for women and members of minority groups. We focus in this piece on the issue of gender bias, but there is increasing evidence that significant bias against authors from minority groups, and authors writing from ‘diverse’ perspectives, also exists in the field. An awareness of intersectionality would suggest that the disadvantages to female scholars discussed below are more severe for non-white women, although we are not currently aware of academic analysis that investigates this.

Citation practices are one of many issue areas where female scholars are consistently disadvantaged. In a 2013 study by Daniel Maliniak, Ryan Powers and Barbara Walter, an analysis of 3,000 articles published in 12 leading IR journals from 1980 to 2006 finds that articles authored by men average 4.8 more citations than those written by women. Women cite themselves significantly less frequently than their male counterparts, but even with self-citations removed, and a large number of other variables controlled for, the citation gap remains. As they explain: ‘A research article written by a woman and published in any of the top journals will still receive significantly fewer citations than if that same article had been written by a man’. By conducting a network analysis, the authors also demonstrate that articles authored by women seem significantly less central to the field than those authored by men, as female authors are cited less often than male by the authors of the most influential articles.

Laurence Zigerell also finds the gender gap to be even starker among the most highly cited articles. In re-examining Maliniak et al.’s data, he finds that, among publications with the top 10 percent of citations, only 9% are authored by women; of those articles with the top 1 percent of citations, only 4.5% are authored by women. By removing the top 10% of cited publications, the gender gap falls from 14% to 5%. In a model with a slightly different dataset, he finds that the gender citation gap was 42% for the 3 top US journals of political science for articles published between 1988 and 2007. Women have authored far fewer of IR’s most often-cited (and thus to some extent field-defining) articles than men.

There are similar patterns evident in female authorship in journals (though the gender citation gap exists even when the percentage of female authors is controlled for). In a recently published study, Dawn Teele and Kathleen Thelen analysed output from the top 10 US political science journals between 2000 and 2015. They concluded that women are consistently under-represented. While the percent of female-authored articles differs for each journal, all are significantly less than the percentage of women as a share of newly minted PhDs (40%) and all but three are less than the percentage of female APSA members (31%). Teele and Thelen propose two explanations: co-authorship practices (women are less likely to co-author, and co-authored articles are on the rise) and the under representation in top journals of the qualitative research methods that female scholars are more likely to employ.

Why it matters

The gender citation gap has long-term and serious implications not only for the career success of women in academia, but also for the students we teach and for the world we participate in creating.

As noted by those familiar with academic career progression practices, highly-cited publications in top-ranked journals remain the most important factor in hiring and promotion decisions. The gender citation gap, then, inevitably contributes to the gender gap we see in IR’s top positions. According to Stephen Bates, Laura Jenkins and Zoe Pflaeger, in 2011, only 15% of full professors in political science in the UK were women (far fewer than the percentage of women in the field overall — 31% — and lower than the national average percentage of female full professors — currently 24% across disciplines, though this percentage is decreasing in many institutions). The 2014 Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) survey asked respondents to name ‘four scholars whose work has had the greatest influence on the field of IR in the past 20 years’, and only one — Martha Finnemore — of the top 10 results is female.

The gender citation gap is also reflected in university pedagogy — most visibly in reading lists. Jeff Colgan examined graduate syllabi designed for PhD students from 42 US universities and concluded that 82% of required readings have all-male authors. Further, he observed that female instructors made a difference to the gender ratio of authors on syllabi: they assigned, on average, 36% more readings by women than male instructors. In a recent analysis conducted at the London School of Economics and Political Science, we examined 43 syllabi and roughly 14,000 assigned items across all levels — undergraduate, masters and PhD — in the 2015–16 academic year and discovered that Colgan’s ratio holds. Only 13.6% of all readings were authored by single women or teams of female scholars while 73% of coded readings have only male authors. We also observed a substantial diversity gap.

These and other ongoing analyses show that the gender citation gap shapes university curricula and the impression that scholarship by men is more central to the field than scholarship by women is passed on to students through pedagogical practices. This presents several interlinked problems, as we have argued at length elsewhere. First, the gender gaps in academic practice fails to reflect the diversity of the object of our inquiry — the international — in all its nuance and empirical richness. Second, the gender gap in academic practice fails to reflect our students and the multi-dimensional political worlds they inhabit. Increasingly, top universities aim to become international institutes of higher learning and celebrate their diverse student bodies. However, students do not see that diversity reflected in their classrooms, and this absence shapes the way students come to understand the world. Representations matter — and importantly, they matter not only for students aspiring to academia but for the future practitioners of international politics, and citizens who will participate in political contestation at the ballot box and in the streets.

Finally, beyond the instrumental objectives that drive our publishing activities, most academics (however jaded) have ambitions to uncover deeper truths and shape the world for the better. Few of us aim to reproduce inequalities in our scholarship and through our teaching, yet it appears that many of us do.

What journals can do

While there are many ways to address the gender citation gap (including diversifying reading lists and encouraging women to cite themselves more frequently), we suggest that journal editors can play a key role. As the main platform through which we share our work, journals have the power to shape scholarly practices, set the agenda, and change expectations. We list here five suggestions for what journal editors can do to help create a more inclusive academia:

  1. Encourage authors to think about who they cite and why

Journals both can and should stress the importance of citation practices in their submission guidelines. Jane Lawrence Sumner’s Gender Balance Assessment Tool offers an easy way to estimate the gender ratio of citations in individual manuscripts. Software such as this could be used to great effect at the early submission stage to require authors to diversify their citation practices, where the ratio is skewed. Links to resources such as bibliographies of female-authored work, or lists of female-authored articles in the journal in question, could also be offered to help authors to access relevant work. For articles with a particularly poor gender citation ratio, journal editors could ask authors to reflect upon and justify why their particular manuscript necessitates a disproportionately large number of references to male-authored work, and then reject work if the justification is not compelling.

2. Diversify content

Research shows that the gender citation gap is particularly large among ‘elite’ articles (i.e. those that are published in journals regarded as particularly prestigious, and those articles that receive a disproportionately high number of citations). This reflects not only an immediate gender bias, but also a narrow understanding of what counts as the core of International Relations. As Maliniak et al explain, ‘women’s research and teaching tend to focus more heavily on topics and regions outside the mainstream of the field and use non-traditional theoretical tools’. Others, such as Robert Vitalis, have shown that what constitutes the scholarly canon is shaped by systems of power and privilege. Journals — if they are serious about narrowing the citation gap — must therefore work actively to diversify their content and target audiences.

3. Diversify the pool of reviewers

In a recent article,Bix Gabriel makes the case for the importance of working towards gender parity amongst reviewers. As Gabriel explains, this means centring the question of ‘who gets to critique whom and what’. While there is no data available on reviewer diversity in IR top journals, research on mainstream magazines that publish book reviews shows that women and minorities are significantly underrepresented. Working to minimize the gap in citations must therefore also mean diversifying who gets to review what kinds of manuscripts.

4. Create pre-submission mentorships

The Journal of Global Security Studies recently launched a programme that seeks to bolster submissions from scholars trained or based at institutions under-represented in the field. The JGSS’s Pre-submission Exchange offers scholars two rounds of limited feedback from members of the editorial board prior to undergoing the usual review process. The aim is to prepare manuscripts for peer review by offering advice on theoretical framing, citations, and structure. When thinking about this in the context of the gender citation gap, care needs to be taken not to imply that the gap is in some way to do with women lacking confidence or authoring skills. As with all examples of gender (and other) discrimination, the fault is predominantly with the system, and not the individuals. However, to encourage female scholars to apply to particular journals in higher numbers, which they may be reluctant to do when these journals have historically been biased against their work, the journals could develop similar initiatives alongside expanding their intellectual reach.

5. Shape the agenda

As students learn in their early classes on IR theory, there is substantial power in being able to set agendas. Journal editors are in a unique position to be able to do so in academic disciplines, given the importance of peer-reviewed publications in academia. They can spotlight pertinent issues; host debates about underlying causes and potential solutions; host panels and events at disciplinary conferences that encourage scholars to critically reflect on their citations practices and pedagogy; and, most important of all, require all authors that they publish to reflect upon and revise, or compellingly justify, the ratio of work by female authors, and authors from minority groups, that they cite.

As the debate continues, it is more important than ever that journals step up as the discipline-shaping institutions they claim to be, and address more seriously the problem of the gender gap in citations.


Kirsten Ainley is Assistant Professor in the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics. She is also a member of the International Affairs editorial board. Her most recent article in International Affairs is titled, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court: counteracting the crisis’. It appeared in the January 2015 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here.

Ida Danewid is a PhD candidate from the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. She was the editor of Volume 45 (2016-17) of Millennium: Journal of International Studies, based at the LSE. Read her most recent publication, ‘White innocence in the black Mediterranean’, here.

Joanne Yao recently received her PhD from the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics. From September 2017 she will hold the post of Assistant Professor at Durham University’s School of Government & International Affairs. She was the editor of Volume 43 (2015–16) of Millennium: Journal of International Studies.

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