Reviewer’s comments spark Twitter uproar

Commentary by

MATTHEW REYNOLDS

The scientific community indignantly swelled on Twitter April 29 following the posting of excerpts from a reviewer’s comments to a manuscript submission. An evolutionary biologist and an evolutionary geneticist submitted a manuscript to a primary literature journal, which remains unnamed. The scientists stated that the identity of the journal is irrelevant because they feel that the problem is systemic. The scientists received the following comments: “It would probably also be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with … in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically based assumptions.”

Essentially, a sexist warned the researchers against ideology clouding decision-making skills while his or her own ideology clouded his or her own decision-making skills.

The reviewer went on to say, “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.”

These comments angered Twitter followers, who brought them to the attention of social media followers tuned in to the incident.

As a budding scientist, I likewise can only respond in outrage at a peer reviewer treating an earnest scientific team as less than another simply on the basis of gender. Review should entail analysis of a manuscript’s rigor in defining a hypothesis, collecting data, properly and honestly presenting data and logical basis of discussion. To devalue researchers with sexist claims taints the scientific process.

As a reader of primary literature, I trust these sources to be held to high standards of review and ethics, for the process of peer review should serve as the pinnacle of scientific advancement and achievement. As a single occasion, this incident does not denigrate the worth of primary literature as a whole; it does, however, cast doubt on the review process. When manuscripts are not subject to double-blind review, the risk of a reviewer’s bias affecting publications increases.

Another harrowing circumstance of the situation concerns the reality that the authors had to take to social media to make their voices heard. The authors, according to their tweets, waited months for an appeal only to be ignored through inaction. Had the women not broached social media, the issue would not have gained attention, and the scientific community would have remained unaware of the bias.

If journals respond to remedy the review process, one can only hope that they address the appeals process as well.

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