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PLOS ONE ousts reviewer, editor after sexist peer-review storm

09 May 2018

The journal PLOS ONE announced today that it is has "removed" a reviewer whose remarks about a manuscript by two female researchers caused an uproar earlier this week. "[W]e have removed the referee from our reviewer database," wrote Damian Pattinson, PLOS ONE’s editorial director, in a Web posting.

The journal has also "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."

PLOS ONE is also considering ways to make the identity of a reviewer known to submitting authors, Pattinson wrote. "We are reviewing our processes to ensure that future authors are given a fair and unprejudiced review. As part of this, we are working on new features to make the review process more open and transparent, since evidence suggests that review is more constructive and civil when the reviewers’ identities are known to the authors (Walsh et al., 2000). This work has been ongoing for some months at PLOS ONE, and we will be announcing more details on these offerings soon."

"I want to sincerely apologize for the distress the report caused the authors, and to make clear that we completely oppose the sentiments it expressed," Pattinson wrote. "The report contained objectionable language, and the authors were understandably upset."

The moves come in response to a controversy that erupted earlier this week. The peer reviewer’s suggestion that two female researchers find “one or two male biologists” to co-author and help them strengthen a manuscript they had written and submitted to a journal unleashed an avalanche of disbelief and disgust on Twitter.

Evolutionary geneticist Fiona Ingleby was shocked when she read the review accompanying the rejection for her latest manuscript, which investigates gender differences in the Ph.D.-to-postdoc transition, so she took the issue to Twitter.

On 29 April, Ingleby, a postdoc at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, posted two excerpts of the anonymous review. “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,” the reviewer wrote in one portion.

“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,” added the reviewer (whose gender is not known).

Ingleby and her co-author, evolutionary biologist Megan Head of the Australian National University in Canberra, submitted the manuscript to “a mid-range journal with a broad readership,” Ingleby explained in an e-mail to ScienceInsider on 29 April. "Megan and I are not wanting to ‘name and shame’ the journal, or the particular Editor involved,” she added. “[W]e feel that this review highlights something that could be an issue with many different journals, so we’d rather not single out one.”

The website Retraction Watch, however, reported that the journal was part of the Public Library of Science (PLOS) family of publications. And later on 29 April, PLOS released a statement. "PLOS regrets the tone, spirit and content of this particular review," it stated. "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." (This 30 April Times Higher Education story identified the journal as PLOS ONE.)

Ingleby and Head said they received the rejection with just the single review. “Not only did the review seem unprofessional and inappropriate, but it didn’t have any constructive or specific criticism to work on,” Ingleby wrote. (The reviewer wrote that the study is “methodologically weak” and “has fundamental flaws and weaknesses that cannot be adequately addressed by mere revision of the manuscript, however extensive,” according to a copy of the review Ingleby provided to ScienceInsider, but Ingleby says these comments are “quite vague” and therefore difficult to address.)

Three weeks ago, the pair appealed the rejection. The only communication they had received from the journal was an e-mail apologizing for the delay. So today Ingleby posted the excerpts because “we felt that the journal should have taken the appeal a bit more seriously - the review is so obviously inappropriate that we couldn’t understand why it was taking so long, when we just wanted them to send it back out for a fair review.”

Ingleby’s tweets unleashed an avalanche of disbelief, disgust and, in some cases, weary expectance. Twitter responses include dumbfounded (“NO WAY. I'm actually speechless”), editorial critiques (“Editor should have discarded that pathetic review & got another”), weary familiarity (“I wish I could say this was shocking. Infuriating, but not shocking”), and darkly humorous (“I certainly hope you consulted a man before tweeting this”). In fact, Ingleby noted in one tweet, she and her co-author had run the manuscript by male colleagues prior to submitting it to the journal.

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