#FeministFriday: “That’s a F***ing Sexist Peer Review, Right There” Edition | Vol. 2 / No. 27.1

Assume the man in the middle is a sexist, and that's basically how single-bind peer review works; Photo: Friman / Wikimedia Commons , CC-BY-SA 3.0
The Panopticon: Assume the man in the middle is a sexist, and that’s basically how single-blind peer review works; Photo: Friman / Wikimedia Commons , CC-BY-SA 3.0

In this week’s #FeministFriday post, Elle discusses an academic review that makes a compelling case heaping pile of sexist crap in the peer review process.


As some of you may have guessed, in a former life I was an academic (and kind of still am, because I’m just the type of masochist who finishes grad school, goes into the “real world” and then writes papers for conferences about popular culture). Speaking from experience (and also research! Because you know, academic) I can tell you that it can be extremely difficult to be a woman in academia. Part of this is for the same reasons that it sucks to be anyone in academia—replacing sleep with three hour naps and enough caffeine to cause a heart murmur, the fact that academia is on fire and 76.4% of faculty are adjuncts, and other “petty” concerns like that.

A large part of it, however, is that as a woman you know going into academia (or at least hopefully you know going in) that you are likely going to have to work twice as hard to earn half as much as your male peers. 71% of female high school graduates enroll in college, compared to 61% of male high school graduates. Between 1999 and 2000, 60% of master’s degrees went to women and 47% of doctorates went to women. Ten years later those numbers improved, and between 20009 and 2010, 62.6% of master’s degrees went to women, as well as 53.3% of doctorates. Yet in 2003, only 24% of full professors were women. 38% of associate professors were women, 45% of assistant professors were women, 52% of instructors were women, and 52% of lecturers were women. Overall, women made up about 40% of the faculty workforce, mostly in the lowest-paid ranks of professors. 2010 data showed similar findings, with women making up 45.5% of the faculty in bachelor’s-granting institutions, 46.1% of the faculty in master’s-granting institutions, and a mere 38.1% of the faculty in doctorate-granting institutions. Numbers released for 2012 showed that female faculty members made between 90 and 93% of what their male colleagues made, which puts them above the national average and still below “equal pay for equal work, how hard is this to understand don’t you people have doctorates?” (Attempting to be Actually Fair and Balanced Note: As with the gender pay gap issue, it’s possible that some of these discrepancies may come from differences in field of study, the prestige of the institution instructors got their degree from, etc. However, also as with the gender pay gap issue, I’m still willing to bet that a good third of the discrepancy can be blamed on plain-old sexism.)

When students believe that an online professor is male, they give said professor a higher evaluation. In a study that submitted identical applications for a lab manager position and randomly assigned either a female or male name to the student applicant, researchers found that applicants that were believed to be male were rated as “significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant”. My academic life would have apparently been much easier and much more lucrative if I had been named Elliott instead of Elle. Plus there would be the whole “sharing a name with Elliot Stabler thing” which is not as cool as pay equity, but is still pretty cool.

Most of these examples fall into the category of systematic, institutional sexism, which can be hard to talk about, let alone address. So when someone in academia does something so blatantly sexist that it is immediately easy to talk about and address, you kind of have to go “….Well…. thanks for being really, really obvious about how horrible and sexist of a person you are.”

After two female researchers submitted a manuscript about their work regarding “gender differences in PhD-postdoc transition based on survey results,” they received a particularly sexist rejection letter. The anonymous reviewer suggested that, and I’m just going to quote here, ‘“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)’ to prevent the manuscript from ‘drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically biased assumptions”’.

That, as we academics like to say, is BS, and not the “Bachelor’s of Science” kind. The reviewer doubled down on their sexism a little bit further on in the rejection letter, writing ‘“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 a bit faster than female doctoral students,’ and ‘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.”’

Wow. Just… wow. Way to couch supremely sexist assertions with the word “perhaps.” It doesn’t really make things better if you say something like “Perhaps women are just naturally inferior to men and don’t do as well in academia as men because they have stupid lady brains and can’t run fast. Hey, that’s not sexist, I said ‘perhaps’ first!” As Fiona Ingleby (one of the researchers who was told she should probably get a man to write her paper for her) put it, the criticism about “drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically biased assumptions” is “a bit hypocritical given the reviewer’s own ideological biases throughout the review”. That, for the record, is being-way-more-respectful-than-you-should-really-have-to-be speak for “The same reviewer who accused me of being biased is as sexist as the day is long, and peppered his/her review with absolutely irrelevant sexist statements about the inherent mental and physical superiority of men.” Please excuse me while I go throw up forever because people like this get into positions as gatekeepers of academic authority.

Some of these sexist comments are specifically directed at the results of the research that Ingleby and her co-author, Megan Head, performed. Ingleby explained that “In a nutshell, we found that men finished their PhDs with more other-author papers than women, but no difference in number of first-author publications. Then we found that the number of publications affected how long it took PhD grads to successfully find a postdoc job – but this effect differed between men and women. It was interesting, but as it used survey data, it was difficult to gain anything conclusive behind the results – so our discussion was pretty open”. Thus the reviewer’s pointed comment about men publishing more articles for the same reason that men can run a mile faster than a woman can. Because obviously the mental and physical skills that lead one to perform and publish research are the exact same mental and physical skills that let you run fast. Do you even academia, bro?

Ingleby and Head showed way more class than anyone could expect of any person in this situation, and refused to “‘name and shame”’ the journal and the editor involved, saying they simply wanted to highlight an issue that was probably happening in a lot of journals. If it was me, I probably would have gone all Martin Luther and stapled the review to the door of the journal’s office, along with a treatise about why the world was terrible. Luckily for those of us who have a sense of vengeance in our souls, Retraction Watch reported that the journal was part of the Public Library of Science (PLOS) family of journals. It was later identified that the specific journal in question was PLOS ONE. When they were appropriately named and shamed, PLOS put forward a statement: “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”.

First of all, this is kind of like when McDonald’s says that it can’t possibly be responsible for the bad stuff that happens in one of its franchises. I mean, just because the McDonald’s brand created the specific guidelines and culture that led to bad things happening in the franchise, and just because McDonald’s approved of this particular franchisee, doesn’t make it McDonald’s fault! There was still someone else in between whose fault it is more! We’re all being terribly unfair.

Second of all, according to Ingleby and Head, the journal didn’t follow up on specific concerns, or really give the authors a chance to have their paper re-reviewed. They received the rejection and the single review, which besides being full of blatant sexism was also full of supremely unhelpful criticism that gave them basically no chance to edit and re-submit. The reviewer told the researchers that their work was ‘“methodologically weak”’ and ‘“has fundamental flaws and weaknesses that cannot be adequately addressed by mere revision of the manuscript, however extensive”’ which is basically the opposite of helpful when you’re trying to fix something. When Ingleby and Head appealed, they didn’t hear anything for three weeks except for an e-mail apologizing for the fact that they hadn’t heard anything for three weeks. The review is so atrocious and so blatantly biased that there is no reason that the appeal should have been taking as long as it was. It would have literally taken exactly one reading of the review for someone in a position of authority to go “Hey, this is super sexist and biased, those ladies and their lady brains may have had a point.” Putting everything out on Twitter was basically a last ditch effort to make the journal pay attention.

To their credit, once the issue hit the media and a rain of internet fire began to fall on them, PLOS removed the reviewer in question, asked the Academic Editor in charge of the review to step down, and stated that they were considering changes to their review system. Rather than instituting a double-blind system, PLOS said, “We are currently exploring a system on PLOS ONE, with an opt-out feature, whereby reviewers’ identities are made available to authors, and reviews posted alongside papers”. Though it’s clear that their current system of single-blind reviews is not working, to be honest I’m not certain how good an idea their new proposal is—sometimes anonymity can be necessary in a review process in order to avoid heated and personalized conflicts between a reviewer and an author, and it seems like this might be a way to actually add more sexism into the process (nothing like getting called a “bitch” because you’re a female reviewer who specifically and accurately told a male author all of the ways that their research is unsound). In addition to these planned changes, I would have liked to see some more commitment to changes within the process of selecting and keeping reviewers, as well as a plan to take a second look at all of the manuscripts that this particular reviewer has been in charge of. The fact that this individual got this sort of job in the first place is rather frightening, and is either a sign that the reviewer is passable at hiding his or her deep-seated sexist beliefs, or that the journal isn’t doing nearly enough to screen their reviewers for bias. I have serious doubts that this is the first time the reviewer in question has let ideological bias affect his or her response to a journal article, or that all of the people who were affected by this reviewer’s bias wanted to go through the potentially painful and length appeals process when they got rejected. It’s also very possible that bad science that did fit this reviewer’s worldview was allowed into the journal.

Overall this incident highlights just how deeply sexism has pervaded academia. There is absolutely no stage—undergraduate, graduate, professional, or publishing—that a female academic is free from additional obstacles and discrimination. The fact that in 2015, someone who ostensibly has a PhD after his or her name felt that it was appropriate and even helpful to suggest that two women who have 40 publications between them add a male co-author in order to address the deficiencies in their “female” thought processes is astounding, depressing, and infuriating. This person may or may not be an instructor in the field, but if they are I am seriously concerned for any female students in their class, and just what kind of “guidance” they are getting from their instructor. At this point I don’t even have a funny quip or sarcastic comment to finish things up, but rather a call to action.

Women academics: even though it sucks so very, very much to be a woman in academia, please don’t give up. Please don’t let sexist morons win. I know that this is additional unfair pressure, and about as helpful as telling a bullied kid that “things get better.” I don’t know if they’ll get better. But I know that things will only get worse if the kinds of people that think that male PhD students are inherently superior are allowed to be the dominant voice in academia. I know that the numbers won’t improve if there aren’t enough women who try, fail, and try again to reach the same levels as their male colleagues. And I know that my own life would have been much less vibrant if the amazing women that I was privileged to call my instructors and mentors hadn’t been around to guide me. To women and men in academia: check yourself and check others for biases and injustice. Pretend like you’re a crime stopper and if you see something, say something. Talk about your own experiences of discrimination or of privilege. If you’re benefitting from the current sexist system, ask yourself why, and ask yourself what you can be doing to help.

Firing a few idiots from a scientific journal is not going to be enough to change the overall conversation, or the overall system. But it’s a start.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not too disgusted by sexism to even, she studies gender in popular culture.