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.