Development through the pandemic
Posted by Katherine Brown, on 2 December 2020
With this strange and difficult year drawing to a close, I wanted to take the opportunity to update our community on how things have been going at Development through pandemic times. In March, the entire staff of The Company of Biologists decamped from the office and started home working. We’re incredibly lucky to have secure jobs that can be done efficiently from home, and while there have certainly been some challenges with adapting to remote working, things have gone surprisingly smoothly and we have (we hope!) continued to provide a high level of service to our authors and readers.
We have been monitoring our activities and workflows closely since COVID-19 hit, and I have to say that, if you looked just at these metrics, you would hardly know the extent of the disruption we’ve all experienced this year. As labs across the world shut down, we thought we might either see a flood of submissions as researchers had more time to write or – conversely – a significant fall as people had so many other challenges to deal with and/or were unable to finish key experiments. What actually happened was neither of these things: the rate of both initial submissions and revisions has essentially kept pace with previous years.
We thought we might receive more short ‘Report’ format articles as projects were written up earlier than they might have been otherwise, but this has not been the case. For the same reason, we wondered whether there might be a dip in the quality of papers submitted, but editorial rejection and overall acceptance rates have held steady. One thing we have seen is a slight shift in the geographic origin of papers submitted to us, with more papers from China-based authors and fewer from Europe. Whether this is a consequence of the pandemic or a more general trend, though, is hard to tell at this point – particularly given that submissions from China have been growing in recent years anyway.
Something we definitely expected was a slowdown in our decision speeds, especially in the early months. We knew that our editors and reviewers were facing the challenges of closing down their labs and/or making them COVID-safe, moving their teaching and mentoring online and – in many cases – taking on additional caring and home-schooling responsibilities. And we did find that some papers were significantly delayed through editorial assessment and peer review; for those authors that did experience such delays, we’re sorry. But, amazingly, our average turnaround times have remained the same this year as last. And even more impressively, more referees accepted our invitations to review papers, and more of them returned their reports on or before their deadline.
One issue that particularly concerned us was the potential disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women. Several reports earlier in the year suggested that submission rates from women were likely to decrease as they bore the brunt of childcare (see e.g. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01294-9). So have we seen any evidence of this at Development? We don’t record author or reviewer gender in our submission system (though this is something we’re working on) so any analysis is necessarily imperfect. But by running names through the genderize.io app, we can get some idea of the gender demographics of our community (I’d note, though, that genderize.io is particularly bad at accurately assigning gender to non-Western names, and of course that this gender assignment is binary and therefore inherently limited). In 2018/2019, 31% of corresponding authors and 48% of first authors for whom gender could confidently be assigned were women. In 2020 (to the end of October), those numbers were 32% and 49%. What about referees? Again looking only at those individuals for whom we could confidently assign gender, 35% were women as compared to 32% in 2018/2019. Pre-pandemic, women were slightly less likely to accept an invitation to review than men, but this year, that trend has reversed. Overall, the data suggest an increasing representation of women among both our author and reviewer pool in recent years, and we hope this trend will continue.
The fact that the metrics for 2020 have looked so ‘normal’ does not mean that researchers have not found the year incredibly tough. Rather, it pays testament to the dedication and resolve of our community to keep going through these difficult times. And while 2021 brings the promise (fingers crossed!) of widely-accessible vaccines, the pandemic is not yet over, and the inevitable economic downturn will present its own financial challenges to the research sector. So I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to and interacted with the journal this year, and who will do so in the year(s) to come – your support is hugely appreciated.