Peer review gone (terribly) wrong

Over the past few decades, the position of women in the sciences, especially fields such as biology, has steadily improved. Young female scientists today have several role models in their fields that provide encouraging evidence that women can be great scientists. And while females may still be the minority in certain settings, we are definitely receiving more encouragement and support, especially at younger ages. Every so often, however, something happens to remind us that not everyone shares the viewpoint that women can and should do science. Last week, such an event took place yet again.

On April 29th, Dr. Fiona Ingelby posted a shocking series of tweets about a review that accompanied the rejection of a research article she had co-written. Ingelby studies evolutionary genetics and statistics as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex. Dr. Meagan Head, co-author on the study, is a post-doctoral researcher in evolutionary and behavioral ecology at Australian National University. The study utilized survey data to examine gender differences in the Ph.D. to post-doctoral transition. The results of the study have yet to be published, but this transition is an important point in any academic career where gender differences could be a factor. Aside from making vague comments about the quality of the study, the review included comments that can only be interpreted as blatantly sexist, which Ingelby posted on Twitter:

“It would probably 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”

The review goes on to suggest that it may not be surprising that male Ph.D. students publish one more paper on average than their female colleagues, just as (the reviewer claims) the average male student can likely run a mile faster than a female student. The review also suggests that males tend to publish more often in better journals not because of any bias but because “men, perhaps, on average work more hours per week than women due to marginally better health and stamina.”

These statements incited a wave of shocked responses on Twitter and various news outlets. One issue that upset people was that the reviewer insists that the authors need to include researchers of both genders to add legitimacy to their interpretations, while not indicating whether both males and females were consulted in writing the review. The reviewer then proceeds to question the legitimacy of a study that is likely based on careful analysis of carefully collected survey data while making highly speculative statements about the physical fitness of graduate students based on no evidence whatsoever.

To my knowledge, there have not been any studies on the physical fitness of doctoral students, though I would be very interested if such a study exists. It has been well established in the general population that men are faster than women, largely due to differences in anatomy. However, doctoral students are not the general population. They are an eclectic mix of people with wide variations in nutrition, physical fitness, and mental health, and who often suffer health consequences from long hours and less-than-ideal eating habits. With this in mind, I would not be surprised if male and female students had similar mile times, or if women were even slightly faster. Additionally, the reviewer does not provide any evidence to support the claims that running times or stamina would have any influence on success in a laboratory. The ability to run a five-minute mile does not make a researcher any more qualified to run a gel, operate a microscope, or sit at a computer analyzing data.

The issue at stake here is not the quality of the study. As it is based on survey data, the possibility of non-response bias and other problems with similar studies may or may not be influencing the data or the interpretation of the results. It is possible that the study is very well done and that the results could have an important impact on gender equality in science. However, it is possible that the conclusions made in the article are not correct. These are the issues that a properly conducted peer review is meant to address. What is at stake is whether or not statements such as those made in this review will be tolerated and whether it will be acceptable to make important decisions such as accepting or rejecting an article based on biased views of female intelligence and capability.

At first, it appeared that the review would stand. Ingelby and Head appealed the rejection, but received no response for three weeks before Ingelby publicized the content of the review. A couple of days after she did so, the journal (PLOS ONE) announced that it had removed the reviewer from their reviewer database, removed the review from the record, sent the manuscript out for re-review, and asked the editor who handled the review to step down. The journal is also considering policy changes that would make the review process more transparent and institute more accountability for the reviewers. It is unfortunate that the review had to be posted on Twitter to motivate such a response. Yet it is encouraging that Ingelby’s voice was heard by the scientific community and that this could change the peer review process for the better.

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