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Cognitive Scientists Question a Journal’s Gender Balance

A major journal publishes a special issue with a striking lack of women authors

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In February, the scientific journal Cognition published a special issue titled, The Changing Face of Cognition. The name was a nod to the new editorial staff, and the evolving field of the study of the human mind.

But a few researchers noted something a bit ironic about the issue championing the "changing face" of the field: out of the 19 invited authors listed, only one was a woman.

On Monday, a team of Carnegie Mellon psychologists made up of Roberta L. Klatzky, Lori Holt, and Marlene Behrmann, published  a discussion piece in Cognition, addressing their concerns. The authors explained that upon reading the issue, they "felt a collective sense of dismay." More than 50% of doctorates in cognitive science are earned by women, they point out. So, they ask, "why would the journal present an image of our science’s future as envisioned largely by male scientists?"

The trio also pointed out that in the past few years of special issues, the gender of the editors who prepared the issue seemed to impact the percentage of women authors included. In the past four special issues, dating back to 2009, "only one shows a near-equal distribution of male and female authors, and that is the sole special issue (2011) where a woman was co-editor," they write. 

Research has shown over and over that even those who think they're being fair likely have hidden biases, and that those biases have real effects. “As cognitive scientists, we know that subtle, even unconscious, biases shape decision making," Holt says, in a statement from Carnegie Mellon. It takes a conscious effort to shake those hidden prejudices. "We hope that by calling attention to the gender disparity in invited scientific contributions we can raise awareness and contribute to developing inclusive strategies," explains Holt.

There are a lot of reasons why representation in science matters, including bolstering the quality of the science itself. Inequity at any level of scientific practice affects the range and scope of problems studied, hypotheses proposed, methods used, and conclusions drawn. Social diversity means better insights, argue Carol D. Lee and Douglas L. Medin in a column for the Association for Psychological Science: "Diverse perspectives often are associated with diverse research foci and the generation of new findings."

About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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