‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online

Sussex researcher speaks of ‘disbelief’ at comments over paper on gender bias

April 30, 2015

A postdoctoral researcher has spoken out about her “shock and disbelief” at “sexist”, “sarcastic” and “patronising” comments she received in a manuscript review.

An anonymous peer reviewer suggests that the paper, written by two female researchers, should include at least one male author to make sure that the data were interpreted correctly, and says that only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science.

The journal in question said that it regretted the “tone, spirit and content” of the review.

Fiona Ingleby, research fellow in evolution, behaviour and environment at the University of Sussex, and Megan Head, a postdoctoral researcher at the Australian National University, submitted a paper to the journal PLOS ONE looking at the progression of PhD graduates to postdoc positions in the life sciences.

In an email to the authors on 27 March, the journal rejected the paper on the grounds that “the qulaity [sic] of the manuscript is por [sic] issues on methodologies and presentation of resulst [sic]”.

The email contained comments from one peer reviewer who listed a series of concerns with the paper. Dr Ingleby posted extracts of the text on Twitter on 29 April, but Times Higher Education has seen the whole review.

The reviewer makes objections to the way that the researchers interpreted the results of a survey of 244 people with a PhD in biology, which the authors use to conclude there is gender bias in academia.

In offering an alternative interpretation of the data, the reviewer says: “It could perhaps be the case that 99% of female scientists make a decision in mid-life that spending more time with their children is more important to them than doing everything imaginable to try to get one of the rare positions at the utter pinnacle of their field.”

The reviewer goes on: “Or perhaps it is the case that only some small portion of men (and only men) have the kind of egomaniac personality disorder that drives them on to try to become the chief of the world at the expense of all else in life.”

The reviewer also suggests that male doctoral candidates may have co-authored more papers than females because they can work on average 15 minutes longer per week. “Such a small difference of average effort could easily be due to marginal gender differences of physiology and health,” the reviewer says.

“So perhaps it is not so surprising that on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile race a bit faster than female doctoral students,” adds the reviewer.

In a separate excerpt the reviewer says that the fact that men have “marginally better health and stamina” may also be why they publish in better journals than women, rather than any gender bias.

“I am not saying this is a fact; this is simply another possible explanation of the thin data available here,” the reviewer adds.

The reviewer makes several suggestions to improve the paper. Among them is the comment that it would benefit from “one or two male biologists”. These men should at least give the paper an internal peer review or “better yet” act as co-authors “in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically biased assumptions”, the reviewer says.

Dr Ingleby told Times Higher Education: “Besides the totally inappropriate sexist comments, the review was full of unconstructive, unspecific criticism…The tone of the review was unnecessarily sarcastic and patronising, and littered with the kinds of petty remarks that I tweeted about.

“My initial reaction was just shock and disbelief…to see a reviewer make such clearly sexist comments was shocking and a bit upsetting,” she added.

Dr Ingleby and her co-author have about 40 published papers between them, and she said that they are open to criticism of their work. She added that she could appreciate that it was “an extreme example of bad peer review”, but said: “If this is what a reviewer is thinking, then it will still affect the quality of the peer review.”

“The reviewer stated their opinions as facts throughout the review, without once bothering to support these opinions with any references, and at points their opinions completely contradicted published research that we had cited in the manuscript,” she added.

A spokesman for PLOS said: “PLOS regrets the tone, spirit and content of this particular review.”

He added that the journal takes peer review “seriously”, is “diligently and expeditiously” looking into the matter and that an appeal is in process.

“PLOS allows academic editors autonomy in how they handle manuscripts, but we always follow up if concerns are raised at any stage of the process,” he said.

“Our appeals policy also means that any complaints of the review process can be fully addressed and the author given opportunity to have their paper re-reviewed.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Reader's comments (11)

What an appalling story. My sympathy goes out to the two ladies. It shows the journal in a very poor light. Why only one reveiwer? Why did the editor not realise that that reveiw could not be accepted and turn to another reviewer? I suggest that the editor should now take two swift actions: (1) remove the reviewer from their list of reviewers, (2) resign immediately with his reason being that he has realised that he is not up to the job.
There are quote marks around the word sexist in the headline because this is a quote from Dr Ingleby. I didn't write the headline but it is standard practice to include quotes in THE headlines.
We always use single quote marks in headlines. Take a look at our previous news stories to see that this is our style and it is consistent throughout our publication. Surely, the focus of this story has to be what has happened and not nitpicking THE's house style!
The article is good but the quotation in the title detracts from the discussion. The PLOS reviewer acted in a sexist manner. It should be stated directly, without quotations. In this case THE's style guide is resulting in readers misinterpreting the message in the article. Remove the quote marks. Problem solved.
Plos One seems to have lost sight of academic integrity if this reviewer's comments were allowed to be the reason for rejection of these scientists' paper. I also wonder why his anonymity is being preserved. Given the very topic of the paper I would have thought that the inflammatory comments that he made would have been caught by the editors at the journal and should have given them pause to consider a new reviewer. Of course, these scientists can only benefit, when their paper is published, from the brouhaha surrounding it's original review. Let's hope after all this it does stand up to scrutiny.
The real shame is the censorship against the referee. He or she pointed out that the paper was not suitable for publication because wanted to support the feminist ideology of victimisation. As well known, most of this kind of ideologically-driven research is a scientific fraud. His suggestion to counter-balance the feminist sexism by involving men in the research is a joke that identifies the main point. Unfortunately the ladies preferred to play the victim card following feminist ideology.
Sometimes, personal beliefs are such that they cause a conflict of interest. The reviewer clearly had strong opinions about the role of women in academia. He is entitled to his opinions. He is not wrong or evil, however, he should have declined to review the article. That would have been preferable to the alternative, especially the egregious misspellings and facetious tone.
This is why 'scientific studies' need to be taken with a pinch of salt in the journal concerned. After all, if all that is needed is a male name for it to be considered we had better re-examine everything they do. Such editorial policy - the editors have not stepped in to re-examine all submissions reviewed by the male reviewer- is a clear warning sign of poor integrity. Alarm bells should be ringing everywhere.
Speak to the relevant select committee and ask them what they intend to do about such journals being seen as world class by universities, and used as part of their funding assessment. Should world class mediocrity attract public funding? Discuss. Remember you have evidence to give..
If the researchers were concerned with gender differences in the life sciences field in their study, the comments from this dreadful reviewer could be used as further data to substantiate their claim. He did their research a service by doing a disservice to the integrity of PLOS and the general role of a peer reviewer.
What ridiculous nonsense and how dare PLOS pander to this feminist dishonesty. The referee was quite right. Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head are feminist chauvinists doing typical advocacy research and when the referee found them out, rather than address the biased defects of their research they played the woman card with the standard jargon. No, the referee does not have peculiar attitudes to women--he merely pointed out alternative hypotheses that refute the interpretation Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head apply to their data. PLOS, pusillanimously, gave in to them. I draw your attention to this highly relevant remark: “The distortions of the truth by the radical feminists of our time will, someday, be seen as having been the greatest intellectual crime of the second half of the 20th century. Meanwhile, we still live under the aegis of that crime and to call attention to it is an act of great moral courage.” Professor Howard S Schwartz, Oakland University, Michigan Time PLOS found the moral courage to say no to feminists shouting at them when their propaganda gets rejected.