Friday May 01, 2015

Peer reviewer tells female biologists their study would be better if they worked with men

Biologists Megan Head (top left) and Fiona Ingleby

Biologists Megan Head (top left) and Fiona Ingleby (Courtesy of Megan Head; Twitter)

Listen 5:44

When biologists Megan Head and Fiona Ingleby submitted a research paper to the highly-respected scientific journal PLOS ONE, they were shocked that their submission was rejected.

And not for the obvious reasons. In their anonymous peer review, they were told that their research manuscript would be better if they worked with men.

"I read it through a couple of times trying to figure out whether it was a joke," Head tells As It Happens guest host Tom Harrington. "[When I showed it to my colleagues], both male and female, they were unanimously outraged. It confirmed what I initially thought... The tone was completely condescending and the sexist comments were peppered throughout the review. I don't know what they were trying to achieve, really."

"It would probably also be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active 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." - Excerpt from anonymous peer review

Ironically, their paper was about sexism. Head and Ingleby conducted a survey of 244 biology PhD students and found that women had worse job prospects than their male colleagues, possibly due to gender bias.

"We initially sent an appeal to the journal when we first received the review back," she says. "We thought it was taking them too long to respond — all we received from them was a form letter apologizing for the delay. But really, this is an open-and-shut case. We couldn't see why it was taking so long, and we didn't want to see this swept under the carpet."

Going public, going viral

Head and Ingleby decided to share excerpts of their review on Ingleby's Twitter account. It went viral.

"Everyone paid attention it seemed," she says with a laugh. "My co-author posted the tweets just before I went to bed at 11 p.m. Australian time. I woke up the next morning and Science magazine had covered the Twitter storm... it's been really crazy, the response."

In less than 24 hours, PLOS ONE issued a statement of apology and announced their appeal was in process.

"PLOS regrets the tone, spirit and content of this particular review. We take peer review seriously and are diligently and expeditiously looking into this matter. The 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. 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." - PLOS One statement

"It's a bit scary going public with something like this, because you know what Twitter can be like. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and we've received a lot of e-mail feedback from people thanking us for speaking out on this and detailing their similar experiences... I'd like to think that eventually [PLOS ONE] would have gotten to it and made the right decision. But we just had no way of knowing that that was going to happen. I think people need to know about this kind of thing as well."

Megan Head for AIH

Megan Head (Courtesy of Megan Head)

A day later, PLOS ONE announced that they were also removing the peer reviewer, and have also asked the academic editor who oversaw the manuscript to step down from the editorial board.

"We just wanted our paper to get a fair review," Head responds. "I have no personal gripe with these people, I don't know who they are, I know nothing about them. The editor made a bad editorial decision and I think they should pay for that bad editorial decision."

Should the reviewer be named as well? 

"No, I really wouldn't want to do that. I don't want to know who they are. I think they've made a mistake, hopefully they've heard about that and they're reflecting on their actions, but I don't think it's fair to name and shame people on these things."

In the end, Head says this experience has confirmed some of the findings in her manuscript.

"Sexism is alive and well I guess."