Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

Sexist Peer Review of Manuscript Authored by Two Female Scientists is NOT an Isolated Incident

Gender bias in science is a pervasive problem – one that women researchers are all too familiar with. Most of the sexist behaviors and actions nowadays that lead to bias in publications, grant awards and leadership positions are quiet and difficult to detect. This implicit bias has a significant impact on women advancing in their careers in academia. But on April 29, 2015, Dr. Fiona Ingleby took to social media, posting an egregious review of an original research article to a well-known open access journal. Although Dr. Ingleby did not name the journal in her Twitter message, it was subsequently identified as PLoS ONE by RetractionWatch.

The sole reviewer of the article provided the following irresponsible, unprofessional, and sexist comments:Sexist comment1

Sexist comment2

I first got wind of this story two days ago through MANY of my scientist friends who posted and reposted on Facebook and sent this around via email. Some were shocked that this could happen in 2015. Others (all women) knew all too well that this is business as usual in science — that female scientists are judged more harshly, more critically than their male colleagues.

Facebook comments from female scientists (friends of my friends) included:

  • “My favorite (or not) story is that a few years ago a reviewer actually wrote (not just thought) that our NIH proposal to investigate potential cognitive advantages accompanying reproductive experience (that we had preliminary evidence to support) was too ambitious considering that one of the female PIs had so many young children (personal information that was obviously NOT included in the proposal). Oh, the irony…”
  • “You know my ‘old’/past supervisor listened to me at SfN last year and was horrified by my story…it made me feel good that he believed me and was horrified that it could still happen. These days there is a lot of he said/she said and other tactics I don’t like too much. So nice when you feel your tale of woe is being heard and understood. Very little of that going on right now (or it *feels* like little understanding of our situation). I think this is a good demonstration of #heforshe if that what it’s called. So I tip my hat and thank you again and hope that others follow suit. LISTEN to the women in your life…we can’t all be imagining things.”
  • “What’s amazing about this whole case to me is how many times I’ve heard (mostly male, but some female) faculty make these arguments to my face. Not to get a male co-author, per se, but the rest as explanations for why men get paid more/win more awards/etc. I’m so glad people are outraged by what was de rigeur seemingly just last year.”
  • “i love the F1000 model of open peer review – holds reviewers accountable by putting their names out there and prevents this sort of bs.”

This story has legs, and was picked up by the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Nature, and many more publishing outlets. I refer you to the articles below for more detailed information and commentary.

In follow-up news, on May 1, 2015 a story was posted in Science Magazine that “PLoS ONE ousts reviewer, editor after sexist peer review storm”. The manuscript behind the storm was sent to a new editor for re-review. So that’s something. But PLoS ONE only acted after the news went viral, not after the authors requested action after they received the irresponsible “review”.

This is not an isolated incident of one rogue reviewer going off the rails in concert with one bad editor making a terrible decision to accept the sexist “review”. This is likely to be commonplace, but as a (typically) hidden problem. Why do I come to that conclusion? Aside from the testimonials from female scientists about implicit and explicit bias in the reviews of their manuscripts and grant applications, there’s published research showing this is the case.

As I point out in my research article, Gender Differences in Leadership Amongst First-Year Medical Students in the Small Group Setting (Wayne et al., 2010):

… an investigation of the gender of editors, reviewers and authors was performed combining information from four epidemiological journals from 1982, 1987, 1992, and 1994 (American Journal of Epidemiology, Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, Annals of Epidemiology, and Epidemiology). In this study, the term ‘editors’ referred to editors in chief, associate editors, and editorial consultants. Data in which the sex was identified showed that men comprised 87% of the editors, 73% of the reviewers, and 71% of the authors (Dickersin et al., 1998). As of June 2009, men still dominated the leadership in these same four journals. All four editors in chief were male, and 21 of the 29 (72%) associate editors and/or members of the editorial board were male. Because editors, review board members, and reviewers have complete control over what gets published, and because publications, grant awards, and career advancement are inextricably linked, these leaders in academic publications are highly influential in career outcomes. Whether or not reviewers and editors exhibit gender-based bias in which papers get published in biomedical journals is a matter for speculation. Notably, recent work by Budden and co-workers (2008) suggests that gender bias in publications does exist. The study found a significant increase in female first-authored papers in the journal Behavioral Ecology following introduction of double-blind review in which the identities of the reviewers and the authors are not revealed to each other. This increase was not seen in a similar comparison journal over the same time period in which the reviewer knew the identity of the authors. Importantly, the increased representation of female authors following initiation of double-blind review more accurately reflected the composition of women in the academic life sciences.

What can be done to counteract gender bias of peer-reviewed publications?

  • There are now several journals in which reviewers are not anonymous to the authors and the readers – this should cut down on mean and thoughtless comments. After all, most people don’t want to look like a jerk in front of their peers.
  • Alternatively, journals could follow the example of Behavioral Ecology and make the review system double-blinded.
  • Editors must do their job and review all reviews. Stupid, thoughtless, biased reviews should be rejected. Those reviewers should be banned from being used again, and informed why they are being eliminated from the reviewer pool.

Science is hard enough without having to endure sexist bullshit.


Manuscript References:

Budden AE, Tregenza T, Aarssen LW, Koricheva J, Leimu R, Lortie CJ. Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors. Trends Ecol. Evol. 2008;23:4-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17963996

Dickersin K, Fredman L, Flegal KM, Scott JD, Crawley B. Is There a Sex Bias in Choosing Editors? Epidemiology Journals as an Example. JAMA 1998;280:260-264. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=187760

Wayne et al (2010) Gender differences in leadership amongst first-year medical students in the small-group setting. Academic Medicine 85(8): 1276-81. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3315611/


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This entry was posted on May 3, 2015 by and tagged , , , .

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