Nature Masterclasses in partnership with HBCUs: How Springer Nature's Employee Networks drove change

Springer Nature Group
By: Marilyn “Mimi” McDonald Hendricks and Bernadette Bynoe Mack, Mon Feb 7 2022

In 2018, the Workplace Equity Survey set out to understand what progress the scholarly publishing industry was making in advancing equity, alongside the developing initiatives that many organisations in the sector, as well as our partners in academic institutions, were making to support diversity, equity and inclusion. Within the many useful insights from this grassroots initiative was the striking statistic, that 67% of those who identify as black or mixed/multiple race do not feel that they have equal access to opportunities for promotion, compared to 45% of those who identify as white.

The African Diaspora’s pipeline tends to have many blockages and leaks that prevent equitable representation in academia and thus peer-reviewed publishing. This leads to the rhetorical question that many African-descent academics and researchers regularly pose audibly and silently: “Why is it so hard to not only get on but lead impactful projects, much less break into scholarly communication?”

The flow in the pipeline starts much sooner than postdoc through academic training, mentorship, sponsorship and networking.

In 2020, a group of colleagues within Springer Nature came together to form the Springer Nature Black Employee Network (or SN BEN for short), which aims to bring about visibility, opportunity and parity for its members, globally. The network cultivates professional relationships amongst Black employees, implements outreach initiatives to develop a pipeline of Black talent and works with relevant business areas to increase representation.

A priority for the network has been to champion equity within the broader scholarly publishing community, and its Pay it Forward working group is the driving force behind a set of initiatives with this aim. One of the primary objectives of the Pay it Forward group is to fortify the editorial pipeline from the African Diaspora, starting with authorship training and publication awareness activities. As a publisher, Springer Nature seeks in all its work to ensure authoritative content, equitably produced by a global research corps that reflects the diversity of its readers. While contributing to the development and reporting of ideas and phenomena, authorship of research can be the gateway to other roles within academia as well as those in the journal publishing lifecycle, such as editors and reviewers. In light of the path to open access, the lines between reader and author continue to blur.

Personal experiences supported by well-published statistics catalysed me (Mimi) to initiate and develop a new programme targeted to support researchers based within historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the US. Working with colleagues from across the company, including the Nature Masterclasses team, and with support from strategic partners the Breast Cancer Research Foundation in October 2021 we created the inaugural HBCU Nature Masterclass.

This five module workshop, which took a virtual format to account for the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, was facilitated by Editors from Nature Cancer and Nature Immunology. We, with our fellow members of SN BEN, working with the strategic partnerships team, secured funding from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation for this innovative programme and then recruited participants. They came from eight institutions including Clark Atlanta University, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, North Carolina Central University, Spelman College, and Xavier University of Louisiana. I (Bernadette) as a proud alumna of Clark Atlanta University, provided opening and closing remarks to encourage participants in their quest to be published. 

The engagement was extremely high, with questions, answers to polls and feedback. With some of the participants logging in from their research labs and others from offices after teaching class, this showed the need and want for masterclasses. Participants ranged from doctoral students to assistant professors, principal investigators, PhD researchers and students. Almost half had published less than 15 papers, in collaboration with a non-HBCU. Less than 50% had participated in a course or webinar on scientific writing. Hearing many participants of the HBCU Masterclass state that they never had the opportunity to interact with editors underlines the importance of access to a “conversation with an editor”, open forums, and webinars on new and cutting-edge scientific practices

Questions posed such as, “How do you ensure that the peer review process (in publishing) is fair for women, people of colour, and faculty working at less prominent institutions or institutions that are not considered research intensive?” resonated with the need we had identified to create these workshops and provide equitable and inclusive opportunities that could open doors as well as cultivate new ideas on research within the global community.

It is with hope that after exposing and understanding the lack of visibility of Black researchers within STEM publishing, that we can all work together along with other sponsors to close the gap. Under Springer Nature’s aims to champion diversity, equity and inclusion through its research publishing division, the future goal is to expand the masterclass reach in the African Diaspora, to include Caribbean Institutions that are often overlooked.  We know that authors consider many factors when considering where to publish their research – relevance, distribution, impact of course – but relationships are also key. They are the thread that bind together the other attributes – we want the HBCU community and its allies to see Springer Nature and our journals as a natural home for their research.

This has been an excellent collaboration between SN BEN, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and other Springer Nature colleagues in Strategic Partnerships and Nature Masterclasses and we look forward to doing more together in the future. We would particularly like to thank colleagues Alexia Ileana Zaromytidou, Laurie Dempsey and Andrea Macaluso.

As we have come together to write this post we have been appalled at the recent bomb threats received by HBCUs across the US. With concern and solidarity, individual colleagues have reached out to librarians and vice provosts at institutions that have been affected. Springer Nature finds these threats reprehensible.

We encourage you to remember: 

“Systems do not maintain themselves; even our lack of intervention is an act of maintenance. Every structure in every society is upheld by the active and passive assistance of other human beings.” 

- Sonya Renee Taylor


To find about more about Springer Nature's Employee Networks, including SN Ben, visit their homepage here. You can also visit the Springer Nature Group YouTube channel to watch SN BEN's recent speaker series, for more examples of their work. For more details on Springer Nature's DEI programmes click here.


Author: Marilyn “Mimi” McDonald Hendricks and Bernadette Bynoe Mack

Marilyn Anne McDonald Hendricks, known as "Mimi", is an Executive Licensing Manager at Springer Nature. In the past 16 years at Springer Nature, she has covered institutional sales in the Latin America and Caribbean regions, and now manages a College Market sales team of four covering the western US. She is the sponsor of the Springer Nature Black Employee Network, chartering President of the Springer Nature Toastmasters, and member of the Steering Committee for Springer Nature’s United Nations Sustainable Development Goals programme.

Bernadette Bynoe Mack is an Account Manager in Institutional Sales (College Market) and has worked at Springer Nature for the past 12 years. Starting in Advertising /Commercial Operations she moved to the Institutional Sales Division in 2020. Currently Bernadette serves as a Network/Employee Representative on Springer Nature’s Global DEI Council, US Chapter lead of the Springer Nature Black Employee Network and Advising Member to the HBCU Working Group.

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