‘Rude’ peer reviews inflict most damage on women and minorities

Study says comments such as ‘she should be in the kitchen, not writing papers’ affect the careers of under-represented groups

December 28, 2019
Source: iStock

Unprofessional and cruel peer review comments have a much greater adverse impact on scientists from traditionally under-represented groups than white men, according to a study.

A survey of 1,106 scientists from 46 countries and 14 disciplines found that 58 per cent reported receiving at least one “unprofessional” review, and of those who had, 70 per cent said they had received these kinds of comments on several occasions.

Comments reported by respondents included: “The first author is a woman. She should be in the kitchen, not writing papers”; “Despite being a woman, the PI was trained by several leading men in the field and is thus likely adequately prepared to lead the proposed research”; and “The phrases I have so far avoided using in this review are ‘lipstick on a pig’ and ‘bullshit baffles brains’”.

Authors Nyssa Silbiger and Amber Stubler, assistant professors of biology at California State University, Northridge and Los Angeles’ Occidental College, respectively, found that there was no significant difference in the likelihood of receiving unprofessional peer review comments across the four intersecting categories of respondents that they examined: women of colour and non-binary people of colour; men of colour; white women and white non-binary people; and white men.

However, white men were the least likely to question their own scientific aptitude or to report delays in productivity or career advancement after receiving an unprofessional review, the survey showed. Compared with white women and white non-binary people, white men were twice as likely to report no resultant doubts about their aptitude; compared with men of colour and women and non-binary people of colour, the respective multiples were 1.3 and 1.7.

Writing in PeerJ, Dr Silbiger and Dr Stubler say that the comments they uncovered “have no place in the peer review process” and represent “yet another barrier to equity”.

“Studies show that a negative perception of aptitude leads to lowered self-confidence, short-term disruptions in success and productivity and delays in career advancement,” they say. “Therefore, our results indicate that unprofessional reviews likely have [contributed to] and will continue to perpetuate the gap in STEM fields for traditionally underrepresented groups in the sciences.”

Dr Silbiger and Dr Stubler recommend that journals create explicit guidelines for peer preview and a process to reprimand or remove reviewers who act unprofessionally.



Print headline: ‘Rude’ peer reviews inflict most damage on women and minorities

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Reader's comments (3)

Probably, white men are less likely to admit that they are suffering from unprofessional reviews just as badly as other people?
In scholarly book publishing, decent editors know to edit out unprofessional, cruel, and rude comments. Most peer reviewers don't understand that editors are sometimes auditioning them as potential authors. I'm asking myself, do I want to work with this reviewer some day? My simple advice: don't be a jerk.
Surly the authors of such comments are guilty of sexism in in the work place.As such should be sanctioned.I can imagine the repercussions if the comments were racist or homophobic.Aaah sexism always the acceptable face of discrimination.


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