I see you are writing an academic article while being female...
May 6, 2015 3:56 PM   Subscribe

...can I help you with that? PLOS (The Public Library of Science) gets rid of reviewer and editor as a result of sexist statements, from Science Insider; Retraction Watch's summary. Here's the direct link to the apology and update on peer review policy from the PLOS ONE blog. Finally, this story gets the BuzzFeed treatment, plus some of the scientific community's responses using the hashtag AddMaleAuthorGate (additional examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, and the Microsoft Assistant paperclip: 5)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (39 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, why am I not surprised?
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 4:05 PM on May 6, 2015


The sad thing is that had the reviewer been savvy enough to be just a little bit more subtle about his (or her, I guess) sexism, the authors would have had no evidence or recourse. It takes a really dumb sexist to say "in the future, you should have a male co-author, little lady." But if you just say "lacks methodological rigor and critical distance," you've got a solid rejection, even if what you really mean is "you should have had a male co-author to remind you that sometimes men are just better than women, little lady."
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:08 PM on May 6, 2015 [17 favorites]


But if you just say "lacks methodological rigor and critical distance," you've got a solid rejection, even if what you really mean is "you should have had a male co-author to remind you that sometimes men are just better than women, little lady."

Yes, absolutely, but at least we can look at the profiles of those getting accepted and rejected and compare them. Enough is enough.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 4:10 PM on May 6, 2015


"Go find your own carbonate sedimentologist" is my new "Fuck off."
posted by Etrigan at 4:18 PM on May 6, 2015 [12 favorites]


At the risk of failing to align with the popular outrage, on the surface this seems to be a failure of tact more than blatant sexism. The manuscript was investigating "gender differences in the Ph.D.-to-postdoc transition," and the reviewer may have been trying to help them avoid the appearance of having a gender bias given that all of the authors were the same gender. If such a manuscript had been authored by an all-male group, urging the authors to seek input from >0 females would be uncontroversial advice.

I am not suggesting that this reviewer was wholly justified in making this comment, nor am I suggesting that sexism in science doesn't exist, I am merely suggesting that this feedback may have been less crass than it appears at first blush.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 4:18 PM on May 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


I've been following this story, friend of a friend has an article in review with them and it has gone nowhere for 7 months. Sciencing while female.
posted by Sophie1 at 4:21 PM on May 6, 2015


The manuscript was investigating "gender differences in the Ph.D.-to-postdoc transition," and the reviewer may have been trying to help them avoid the appearance of having a gender bias given that all of the authors were the same gender. If such a manuscript had been authored by an all-male group, urging the authors to seek input from >0 females would be uncontroversial advice.

Flipping stories about women to "What if it was about men?" is rarely helpful, because it ignores the power dynamic and representational differences.
posted by Etrigan at 4:23 PM on May 6, 2015 [32 favorites]


I've been following this story, friend of a friend has an article in review with them and it has gone nowhere for 7 months. Sciencing while female.

At least in my (former, non-science) field, seven months going nowhere is sadly unusual, regardless of gender.
posted by kenko at 4:24 PM on May 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


If such a manuscript had been authored by an all-male group, urging the authors to seek input from >0 females would be uncontroversial advice.

True. But the question is: if the manuscript had been authored by an all-male group, would the authors be advised to seek input from female colleagues?
posted by JauntyFedora at 4:26 PM on May 6, 2015 [19 favorites]



The manuscript was investigating "gender differences in the Ph.D.-to-postdoc transition," and the reviewer may have been trying to help them avoid the appearance of having a gender bias given that all of the authors were the same gender. If such a manuscript had been authored by an all-male group, urging the authors to seek input from >0 females would be uncontroversial advice.


Then the reviewer should have also sought out the opinion of a woman to avoid the appearance of being a sexist asshole.

Or do these concerns only apply to women?
posted by srboisvert at 4:33 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh my god I know exactly who made the carbonate sedimentologist suggestion - it's a small field. I've worked with this asshole.

I'm giving a talk soon at a conference about these kind of issues and I know he's going to be there.

I'm going to put this on a power point slide in letters 3 feet high.
posted by barchan at 4:34 PM on May 6, 2015 [70 favorites]


if the manuscript had been authored by an all-male group, would the authors be advised to seek input from female colleagues?

Fair point; it would be uncontroversial to do so, but unlikely to occur. And that is the (very reasonable) crux of the complaint. It is silly when only one segment of the population is subject to second-guessing. I was just trying to give the reviewer the benefit of the doubt, but perhaps he/she does not deserve it.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 4:37 PM on May 6, 2015


I suppose it could be a valid critique, though I seriously doubt it. But the full reviewer's comments included the following, which to my (admittedly, female) eyes strikes me as pretty much blatant bias and sexism, and pretty much negates whatever useful shreds of information might be squeezed out of the first comment:
Perhaps it is not 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...

As unappealing as this may be to consider, another possible explanation would be that on average the first-authored papers of men are published in better journals than those of women, either because of bias at the journal or because the papers are indeed of a better quality, on average ... and it might well be that on average men publish in better journals ... perhaps simply because men, perhaps, on average work more hours per week than women, due to marginally better health and stamina.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:42 PM on May 6, 2015 [36 favorites]


And this is NOT about tact. The reviewer did not give them any feedback that was specific enough to improve the paper, which would have made a useful review; made a point of telling them that they looked at their websites prior to reviewing the paper (instead of reviewing the paper on its own merits); and then said: "simply because men, perhaps, on average work more hours per week than women, due to marginally better health and stamina" as a reason why men publish more papers than women as part of their written comments. That's not peer review as a scientist - that's review by someone with a sexist agenda. Suggesting male input - with no knowledge of whether or not they did, which they had - was not the reviewer's point. The reviewer specifically said, get "1-2 active male co-authors." That is not a failure of tact.

This goes beyond sexism - it's also a question of the scientists' credibility.
posted by barchan at 4:42 PM on May 6, 2015 [41 favorites]


and it might well be that on average men publish in better journals ... perhaps simply because men, perhaps, on average work more hours per week than women, due to marginally better health and stamina.

Gross. I had not investigated this story sufficiently to discover such remarks. Please consider my devil's advocation withdrawn on this matter. The benefit of the doubt is entirely exhausted here.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 4:50 PM on May 6, 2015 [28 favorites]


the risk of failing to align with the popular outrage, on the surface this seems to be a failure of tact more than blatant sexism.

Uh, no. Coming up with a blatantly false bit of gender essentialism (men are healthier? Seriously?) to handwave away the findings is most definitely sexism.
posted by happyroach at 4:53 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Absolutely horrible. I don't understand why the editor didn't step in earlier and get another reviewer. It's also frustrating that the journal did not respond to Ingleby's requests until she went public with the crap review. Good on her.
posted by tickingclock at 5:25 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I almost failed to get tenure because of a situation quite like this. I'd published a book on race, class, gender and success at professional schools. It was mostly a qualitative work, and the data collected quite substantial in that context (over 400 hours of participant observation, a material cultural analysis of a wide array of buildings, classrooms, and courtyards, and in-depth interviews with about 80 professional students). To provide some additional evidence, I performed some basic quantitative analyses of my interview data, to show that even with the fairly low (from a quantitative perspective) N, many of my findings were robustly statistically significant. The book was well-reviewed and was a finalist for a significant award in my field, and based on the book and my other publications, the chair of my department had conveyed to me that he was confident about my tenure case.

Unfortunately , the executive committee of my department selected as one of the outside reviewers of my tenure file a man who was both a raging sexist and mean-spirited. And just like this PLoS ONE reviewer, his critique of my book was excruciatingly misogynist, both in the eyes of many in my department, and my own (I was given an anonymized copy of the segment of his letter in which he critiqued the book, to respond to it in my tenure appeal). The reviewer accused me of "reverse sexism" based on my "biased position as a woman," and claimed this skewed my results. (In fact, while I was still legally female at the time, I am intersex by birth, and gender transitioned to legal male status soon after finally securing tenure.) He stated that my book was a "diatribe against white men" (I am, by the way, white), and then proceeded to "prove" it was worthless by framing it as so deeply methodologically flawed as to be meaningless, because an N of 80 could not support conclusions of any substance. Critiquing a piece of qualitative research on the grounds that it involves fewer subjects than a piece of quantitative work is treated by scholars with any knowledge of qualitative methods as methodologically naive and silly, but that didn't slow down this reviewer one whit.

The executive committee of my department did try to frame this reviewer's critique as odd and misguided, but the expectation in a tenure review case is that departments send the case out to those considered distinguished scholars with great credibility in their fields, and as most of the professors hearing my tenure case were quantitative scholars (a majority of them men), they found this jerk's letter to be damning, and voted my tenure down.

The story has a "happy ending" in that in the end, I did secure tenure on appeal, a very unusual thing, but it followed some very trying and anxious months in which I had to gather mounds of testimony as to the quality of my work from scholars in my field, and to make a clear and strong case that qualitative research like my own is indeed valued in my discipline.

And all because some insecure white dude experienced an analysis of how a privileged habitus proves a boon to professional success as a personal attack, deserving one in retaliation.
posted by DrMew at 5:26 PM on May 6, 2015 [51 favorites]


Ugh. I'm sorry that happened to you, DrMew. That sounds harrowing.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:33 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


As usual, this translates into "Nobody will listen to you unless someone with a penis says it."
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:52 PM on May 6, 2015


As usual, this translates into "Nobody will listen to you unless someone with a penis says it."

I don't think trans women would fare much better here. Unless by "penis" you intend to say "men"?
posted by Conspire at 5:58 PM on May 6, 2015 [7 favorites]


Christ, this has been making the rounds on all my feeds this week. I'm glad PLoS ONE ejected the motherfucker from its reviewer pool, but not glad that such an egregious piece of shit is allowed to toss his bullshit around in the first place.
posted by sciatrix at 6:08 PM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


sciatrix: "Christ, this has been making the rounds on all my feeds this week. I'm glad PLoS ONE ejected the motherfucker from its reviewer pool, but not glad that such an egregious piece of shit is allowed to toss his bullshit around in the first place."

Succinctly put. I'm also profoundly unsurprised that the academic editor got the push over this; quite apart from anything else, by keeping this referee on the strength, the editor was effectively standing in the way of progress in their discipline. (It's hard for me to believe that this wildly incompetent review was that first of its kind.)

On another note: I'm intrigued by the difference in opinion between Inglesby — in favour, per this tweet, of double-blind review — and Pattinson, who cites Walsh et al. in support of open review. Double-blind is fairly predominant in my field (computer science), and while I've always gone through life cheerfully assuming that it was both a necessary and sufficient condition for fairness, I'm not so sure now that I think about it. I'd be interested in hearing what other MeFites working in the academic salt mines think.
posted by Zeinab Badawi's Twenty Hotels at 7:07 PM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


I wish that PLoS had commented on why they didn't respond to the appeal until it showed up making them look bad on twitter. Did they go back and look at other things this guy rejected to see if he was being misogynistic all over them too? Did they check what other reviewers under the same editor were getting away with?
posted by jeather at 7:18 PM on May 6, 2015 [6 favorites]


In my field, the prevailing opinion from PIs seems to be that ecology/evolution/behavior is a small enough world that anyone who works in your system can probably guess what lab group your paper is from just from reading the details of the work. For reference, the main reason I don't talk about the exact species I work with anywhere searchable is because there is exactly one lab group that currently works on them, and it's mine. That's not the MOST common situation in my field, but it's pretty common for those of us who work with non-model species or even species that are effectively a model for a specific question. (The other system my lab works with falls into that category... and I can think of, oh, maybe four or five groups I'm aware of which work with that one?) It's not like you can blind the reviewers to your species, unfortunately, and people tend to send papers out for review to people who work in pretty similar systems and who are more likely to know each other.

That said, I like the idea of blinding reviewers to names so they can't see the first author's name and make judgements based on that, so that if they're feeling cranky about a lab group at least they're slinging their gut prejudices at the PI and not me, the lowly PhD student.
posted by sciatrix at 7:46 PM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


If only bias was always so open, it would be so much easier to fight. Normally people are smarter and use correctly coded language rather than coming out with such open grossness.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:47 PM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


If such a manuscript had been authored by an all-male group, urging the authors to seek input from >0 females would be uncontroversial advice.

I can't agree with that at all. Telling the author(s) of a paper that has a reasonable theory, that's methodologically sound, and that addresses the existing literature well and fairly that you're rejecting their work because they're not demographically appropriate to work on the population they're studying would be pretty shocking to me.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:19 PM on May 6, 2015 [8 favorites]


In my field, the prevailing opinion from PIs seems to be that ecology/evolution/behavior is a small enough world that anyone who works in your system can probably guess what lab group your paper is from just from reading the details of the work.

I have the same problem (and similar issues with discussing exactly what I do). There really is no good answer to this one though---to get a high quality review, papers need to be sent out to the leading research groups, but on the other hand, the viewpoints and biases of those groups also tend to be very well known.

For the reviews I help run, we try to get around that by engaging out-of-discipline experts for parts of papers---like a stats expert for an experimental design or some who works in a related field---but that's not a full solution. Someone needs to be able to look at a paper as a whole with the full literature context, and options there are often limited.
posted by bonehead at 9:57 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


I have reviewed and been reviewed double-blind, single-blind (reviewers know who the authors are but authors don't know who the reviewers are), and unblinded. I honestly prefer unblinded as an author. If someone is an asshole, I want to know who they are and avoid them, and if someone is incredibly helpful, I am delighted to be able to thank them. I have, so far, never received a review that I felt was unfair simply because of who I am. Although I certainly have received badly written and fairly useless reviews, they never seem to be personal, but just that the person is a bad reviewer. I honestly am shocked to see sexism this blatant in a review in 2015.

But then again, I am fortunate to be in a field (freshwater ecology) which has had several prominent women since at least the 1970s, and I was even more fortunate to have one of our early women stars for my master's advisor and one of our current women stars for my doctoral advisor, and to collaborate with several others. It may be that sexism against generic women in academic publishing is still bad, but that specific women have "earned" their way out of it by, quite frankly, being twice as good scientists as a man would have to be.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:13 AM on May 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Fantastic post on this from one of the founders of PLoS:

"It’s hard to fathom how a review as blatantly sexist and harassing as this one was not only sent back to the authors, but used as the sole basis for a negative publication decision on the submission. There are really only two possibilities – neither of them good: the academic editor handling the manuscript failed to fully read the review, or they read it and didn’t find its contents objectionable. So either the editor doesn’t take their job seriously or they are complicit to harassment. Whatever the answer, they shouldn’t be handling manuscripts, and PLOS has asked them to resign their position (and, presumably, will not send them any more manuscripts even if they don’t formally resign).

This editor (again, I don’t know their identity, or anything about their past performance for PLOS) was one of approximately 7,000 academic editors who handle manuscripts for PLOS ONE. The vast majority of the people who edit and review for PLOS take their work seriously and are constructive in their reviews. However, with that many editors it’s inevitable that some are going to do their job poorly. But we can’t just write this off as a bad editor. PLOS has intentionally (and for good reasons) devolved a lot of autonomy to its editors. But in doing so it has magnified the effect that a bad or negligent editor can have, and this increases the need for PLOS to train its editors well, to oversee their work carefully, and to respond rapidly when problems arise – all of which PLOS failed on here.

One issue has to do with the way that editors conceive of their job. It’s always seemed to me that many academic editors think that their primary responsibility is to identify reviewers and then to render decisions on papers after reviews are in. They recognize that they sometimes have to adjudicate between reviewers with different opinions – making them a kind of super reviewer. But I seldomly hear academic editors talk about another – arguably more important – aspect of their job, which is to protect authors from lazy, capricious or hostile reviewers. In my experience most editors almost always pass on reviews to authors even if they disagree with them or think they were inadequate – it’s somehow felt to be bad form to have asked for a review to then turn around and not use it. This needs to change. I would argue that protecting authors from reviewer malfeasance or malignancy is the most important role for editors in our current publishing system. Maybe PLOS and other journals already do this, but every academic editor should be trained to recognize and deal with the various types of harassment and other bad reviewer behaviors that we know exist."
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:16 AM on May 7, 2015 [8 favorites]


I used to really like the idea of double-blind review. Then I got to grad school and can now recognize a bunch of groups in my field by their research, and at least one of them by their writing style (Possibly two). Also, there is the problem in chemistry of the fact your early citations almost always include 'in our previous work' or 'synthesis performed as previously published'
posted by Canageek at 2:29 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Disgusting. As a woman in academics, and the daughter of a woman in academics, I am saddened but not shocked.

Today one of my kid friends (a girl, aged 7) asked: "Why do women make less money than men for the same job?" I don't know kiddo. I just don't know.
posted by k8bot at 3:52 PM on May 7, 2015


.If such a manuscript had been authored by an all-male group, urging the authors to seek input from >0 females would be uncontroversial advice.

You really believe that? I think its more likely that whoever suggested it would get gamergated.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:16 PM on May 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I know of someone who could identify the authors of a paper she was reviewing and knew them from university. Considering them to be nice people she went about extensively rewriting their paper so that next time they submitted it might get accepted because it was sloppy, unpublishable nonsense as she received it. An extreme example of doing work for no credit.
posted by asok at 2:00 AM on May 8, 2015


I know of someone who could identify the authors of a paper she was reviewing and knew them from university. Considering them to be nice people she went about extensively rewriting their paper so that next time they submitted it might get accepted because it was sloppy, unpublishable nonsense as she received it. An extreme example of doing work for no credit.

This seems truly bizarre, if not completely inappropriate, to me, but maybe the appropriateness of this varies by discipline?
posted by anthropophagous at 11:46 AM on May 8, 2015


This seems truly bizarre, if not completely inappropriate, to me, but maybe the appropriateness of this varies by discipline?

It isn’t really about appropriateness, when it comes to recognizing a person’s writing style. If there are 20 people in a field, and you are one of them, you are going to begin to recognize their writing styles. I mean, there are hundreds of regular Metafilter posters— aren’t there some who you recognize by style before you see the usernames?

The other problem is that within already small fields, the fact that you know what other people are working on means that even blinded manuscripts...aren't. If you are a tenured professor, and you go to a conference with a bunch of other tenured professors, and you all attend a cocktail hour and have a conversation about your work and what your grad students are doing and the new software your department is trying out, then that is normal workplace conversation for you. Let’s say that Professor Xavier from University of Westchester is working on gene X decoding using chemical process Alpha and logging the results in a trial run of Digitalin Software TM.

And if six months later you are asked to review a paper that it is COMPLETELY blinded, but it is about decoding gene X using chemical process Alpha, and the results have been compiled using Digitalin Software TM, and there are only 100 people in the world doing this level of work, only ten people doing it with this approach, and only one of them is remotely interested in this form of analysis— the manuscript can be completely blinded, all names, affiliations, and funding sources scrubbed out, but you are still going to know at least one of the authors. (You will also know that Professor Xavier often works with Professor McCoy, so there’s a good chance he’s a co-author, etc. etc. Maybe one of Professor Xavier’s grad students is first author, but still, you know the cohort.). Many peer reviewers will let editors know “hey, I know who this is, you should pick someone else”, but in some areas of expertise that isn’t feasible all the time.

Professional networks aren’t invisible, basically, and while you’ll never know for sure until an article is published, and while this certainly doesn’t happen for every article in every field, it’s hard to avoid in some of them and with some authors.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:22 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


(although, granted, recognizing someone's work and editing it for them are wildly different things!)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:23 PM on May 8, 2015




Journals are increasingly asking for lists of suggested reviewers as well, so you're pretty much guaranteed to know exactly who wrote at least one of the sets of comments.

Anonymity can act as a fig leaf for real criticism, even if the authors can guess who it's from. You often can't be more precise in your guess than research group or lab level, leaving the authors being able to pretend that that slightly harsh comment must have come from an enthusiastic postdoc or whatever. It's a bit of social grease, even if it may be not more than a polite fiction to allow reviewers to be a bit more frank than asking questions at a conference or by email.
posted by bonehead at 9:18 AM on May 9, 2015


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