Thursday, May 07, 2015

Get Some Male Co-Authors To Improve Your Paper. That's One Reviewer's Advice For Two Female Biologists.

Here's a fun story (from a week ago)  about the lives of female academics.  Well, not all their lives and perhaps nowadays even only small snippets of their lives, but this stuff is still part  of the musty smell of academic gowns:

Fiona Ingleby [and Megan Head] wrote a paper on the difficulties of making the transition from graduate school to post-doctoral position for women. She submitted it for review. A review is kind of an invited comment, you know, so given Lewis’ Law, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at what followed — she got a negative review that actually justified the contents of her paper.

Get it?  Men can run faster and therefore men must be better researchers!  But women are, on average, more flexible than men.  Maybe women write more complicated papers?

Duh.  Both comparisons are idiotic.  Which means the review is idiotic, too.

But wait!  It gets better:

Would those men have to be very fast runners, too?  The reviewer believes that men are superior thinkers, runners and -- probably -- reviewers.  If we employ those pesky 'ideologically biased assumptions.'  By the way, I'd really like to see the empirical evidence that demonstrates better health and stamina among the men in the relevant age group.

The journal whose editor passed these anonymous comments to Ingleby reacted promptly:

PLOS ONE has strict policies for how we expect peer review to be performed and we strive to ensure that the process is fair and civil. We have taken a number of steps to remedy the situation. We have formally removed the review from the record, and have sent the manuscript out to a new editor for re-review. We have also asked the Academic Editor who handled the manuscript to step down from the Editorial Board and we have removed the referee from our reviewer database.

Which is the correct thing to do.  Not because the reviewer suggested that the authors should consider average gender differences in the quality of the papers as one possible hypothesis to be examined*, but because he/she didn't say that.

Instead, he/she assumed that the poor little ladies need burly shoulders to lean on and masculine brains to borrow to get anything done.

I can't now get rid of the imagery of male biology graduate students sprinting around campus fountains, clad as ancient Greek Olympians were, the winner of the race getting the laurel wreath and the best publication placements, while the feeble and sickly female graduate students sit on the lawn under pink parasols and applaud.

*Or rather, the authors should try to hold the quality of papers constant while studying, say, any differential treatment of male and female researchers.

Added later:  The importance of this case is in the way anonymous reviews are used to decide which article gets published in which journal.  So they have power.

On the other hand, the final acceptance rates by gender could be used in later research  to determine how good men and women are in research.  Cases like the one above are unlikely to be common, but they point out that something which is supposed to be a somewhat objective assessment of the quality of the work (a peer review) may not be that at all.