Female researchers outraged when asked to include men

Megan Head and Fiona Ingleby submitted a research paper to the journal PLOS ONE. The paper explored the postdoc positions offered to PhD graduates in the life sciences. It specifically focused on whether sexism affected the positions offered to female graduates. The journal rejected the paper, however, on the grounds that “the qulaity [sic] of the manuscript is por [sic] issues on methodologies and presentation of resulst [sic]”.

Setting the irony of that statement aside, the controversy erupted when the researchers published excerpts from the review online:

The reviewer makes objections to the way that the researchers interpreted the results of a survey of 244 people with a PhD in biology, which the authors use to conclude there is gender bias in academia.

In offering an alternative interpretation of the data, the reviewer says: “It could perhaps be the case that 99% of female scientists make a decision in mid-life that spending more time with their children is more important to them than doing everything imaginable to try to get one of the rare positions at the utter pinnacle of their field.”

The reviewer goes on: “Or perhaps it is the case that only some small portion of men (and only men) have the kind of egomaniac personality disorder that drives them on to try to become the chief of the world at the expense of all else in life.”

The reviewer also stated:

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.

The sensible response to these criticisms would be to consider them. Is it possible that Head and Ingleby’s ideological biases (i.e. their feminist positions) affected how they interpreted the data? Is it possible that they ignored data that did not fit their hypothesis? Is it possible that they overvalued data that did fit their hypothesis?

Head and Ingleby did not think so. Instead of taking the reviewer’s comments seriously, the pair felt insulted:

Dr Ingleby told Times Higher Education: “Besides the totally inappropriate sexist comments, the review was full of unconstructive, unspecific criticism…The tone of the review was unnecessarily sarcastic and patronising, and littered with the kinds of petty remarks that I tweeted about.

“My initial reaction was just shock and disbelief…to see a reviewer make such clearly sexist comments was shocking and a bit upsetting,” she added.

PLOS, the journal in question, responded to the controversy by firing the reviewer and the editor who managed the manuscript. They issues a statement apologizing for the incident:

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.

There is one remaining problem: no one published the full review. Many statements can sound bad out of context. The statements Head and Ingleby tweeted appear to suffer that fate. They clearly refer to certain sections of the manuscript, but neither the section in question or the full statement from the reviewer is given.

That is incredibly misleading. It could be that the reviewer injected sexist attitudes into the review. It could also be that the researchers jumped to conclusions based on their feminist positions and the reviewer responded with an alternate explanation.

Until the manuscript is published, I cannot decide whether the reviewer was in the wrong. I do think, however, that the researchers’ behavior suggests that there may be something to the reviewer’s complaint that the pair were influenced by their ideological bias.

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19 thoughts on “Female researchers outraged when asked to include men

  1. The research in question sounds familiar, likke maybe I have read it already. But if it hasn’t been published, then that isn’t likely unless the authors previously released it to the press. It could be that it is just very similar to other research I have read. That said, I would also take issue with the reviewer. The rejection statement that contains several errors does appear to take a highly sarcastic tone that is very unprofessional. I could see a blogger taking a sarcastic stance, but not a reviewer for a professional journal. however, the reviewer does make some good points, especially that there may be alternate interpretations for the data that were not addressed by the researchers. alternate interpretations of the data need to be presented and discussed and reasons must be given as to why they were ruled out.

    The reviewers remark about ideological bias may have been a legitimate concern, but it is also poorly presented. Researcher bias is a given in any research, what is required is a discussion of that bias containing an acknowlegment that it exists and outlining the steps taken to curtail it. If there was no such section in the article then it would need to be addressed and having somone as a co-author who holds a differing ideological point of view could be beneficial. The real problem is the way the reviewer stated it. However, I have seen such statements made with the sexes reversed, suggesting that a female opinion be sought as balance or suggesting that men can’t adequately discuss an issue because they aren’t women.

    What it really sounds like is that the reviewer is sick and tired of reviewing feminist reaserch and not being permitted to call “bullshit” on the anti-male sexism.

  2. YOu cant just call everything you don;t like sexist and expect to get your way.

    Deal with other people’s criticism or just go away.

  3. It seems like every day there is another round of bullying by people like this, rather than responding to critique with more critique.

    Yesterday it was the outrage and bomb threat towards a Gamergate meetup in DC. Today I hear about this.

    Have things always been this way, but we’re speaking out against this behaviour more?

  4. 1. I’m inclined to believe that the research was not worthy of publication as scientific research – science is meant to expand our understanding about the way that people or world works, not support a political cause. This study might have done that if they intended to repeat it over time and look at the change, or if it was truly comprehesive (244 people may be enough to get a statistically significant result, but it would only prove that biases of those 244 people- not everyone), but as a one off study it is just score keeping.

    2. That being said, this reviewer appears to have committed blatant sexism by requesting a male be involved in the review process. There’s no reason to believe a male collaborator could have added anything to this.

  5. I’m sorry, I work in academia and the reviewer’s comments sound insanely unprofessional, and I doubt adding more context would magically transform that. As a previous commenter pointed out, there are scientifically valid ways of controlling for researcher bias and recommending a “male co-author” certainly isn’t one of them. That said, crappy/off-topic/unprofessional reviewers are unfortunately common enough so it seems odd this one is getting so much hype and outrage.

  6. But what is so egregious about a suggestion that males may bring a different interpretation of a gender issue?

    Don’t women have their “lived experience” of a situation like this, and men have theirs?

  7. The_spiral:

    I’m sorry, I work in academia and the reviewer’s comments sound insanely unprofessional, and I doubt adding more context would magically transform that.

    Perhaps, although it would not hurt to read what the reviewer criticized. The context may take some of the sting out of the comments.

  8. Thanks for bringing this story to our attention.

    I actually HAVE seen hard science proposals rejected for not including a female on the team.

  9. “The rejection statement that contains several errors”

    which are… ?

    BTW, what is “professional”?

    Since when is freedom of tone a bad thing?

    Since when are scientists such pussies?

  10. “There’s no reason to believe a male collaborator could have added anything to this”

    Are you seriously suggesting they should have requested the name of CONSERVATIVE researcher, male or female, on the team? (I don’t think any such thing exists; or they exist, but are in the closet.)

    IMO the author of this excellent review believed a man was the most non feminist and non biased thing they could get (and agree with).

  11. “I’m sorry, I work in academia and the reviewer’s comments sound insanely unprofessional”

    I get from what you write that academia is a lot about “sounding” sound.

  12. Do you think ANYONE would agree to review for PLOS after this blunder?

  13. What we need is the full article that has been submitted and the full response from the reviewer. As it seems to me now, the whole thing could range from a nicely written article and a crazy reviewer to a crappy article and a reviewer with a strange kind of humor.

  14. It seems that the paper states, in a nutshell; “Evidence states that X happens because of Your, but we won’t consider that because we want to believe Z”. Probably because it gives them a cause, well, just because you don’t like the truth doesn’t mean that it’s not the truth.

  15. @James: Did you actually read the paper? I asked the two authors for a preprint, but never got an answer…

  16. Pingback: Hilfe für Männer ist gesellschaftlich unerwünscht « jungsundmaedchen

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