There has recently been a lot of attention on the journal PLOS One and their handling of a heavily gender-biased review received by an evolutionary biologist on a manuscript about gender differences in the Ph.D. to Postdoc academic transition. PLOS One has taken a few actions, including asking the academic editor who handled the manuscript to step down from the editorial board and removing the offending reviewer from their database. Dr. Michael Eisen, one of the founders of PLOS, has provided interesting commentary on the subject.
What’s just as troubling is that the reviewer clearly used his personal assessment of not only the authors’ gender but also their “junior” academic status in his criticism. A blog that focuses on manuscript retractions has another summary of the issue. Dr. Fiona Ingleby, one of the authors of the manuscript, tells the authors,
Megan and Fiona are pretty unambiguous names when it comes to guessing gender. But in fact, the reviewer acknowledged that they had looked up our websites prior to reading the MS (they said so in their review). They used the personal assessment they made from this throughout their review – not just gender, but also patronising comments throughout that suggested the reviewer considered us rather junior. – Fiona Ingleby
This has raised some major issues about the peer-review process, including whether a reviewer’s identity should ever be revealed in a single-blind or double-blind review. Dr. Eisen addresses this in his blog posted above. Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos wrote about removing publishing bias in science, here in the form of sexism. In response to Dr. Eisen’s post, she explicitly addresses the accountability that institutions and publishers need to have in place.
It will be interesting to see how PLOS One and other publishers address this now-viral issue, especially by the changes to the peer-review process. Some have noted that the PLOS One editor failed in his/her duty by returning this gender-biased review to the authors instead of disregarding it, and it wasn’t necessarily a problem with the procedures. But more and more journals are moving to different review styles, including Nature’s experiment with double-blind peer review. If the PLOS One review had been double-blind, the reviewer may have been able to guess the gender of the authors but would not have been able to verify that, and especially not verify their current academic positions.