Reviewing the irony

Sometimes, just sometimes, the stars line up and the subject I’m discussing on my science blog gets big media attention. Yay, relevancy!

I mentioned last post that most peer reviews in my field of study are single blind, basically letting the reviewers be on the cop side of the one-way mirror. While this does seem to work, there are of course problems with it. Reviewers can be mean if they don’t like one of the authors, or they can let things slide if the authors are well known or friends. Since science really does try to minimize bias whenever possible, the ideal situation would be to make reviews double blind by erasing the authors’ names from the manuscript sent to the reviews. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why this isn’t how the system works. Laziness perhaps? It takes quite a bit of effort to change even small things that are rooted in a bureaucratic process.

Well, here’s to hoping that a blatant display of sexism is the push needed to change that. In short, two female authors recently had a manuscript rejected based on one review that flat out told them they needed male help to do better science. They appealed the decision, waited 3 weeks, got frustrated and tweeted about it, leading to #addmaleauthorgate. Clumsy hashtag, but effective.


You read that right. Men are apparently purely fact-based creatures with better stamina, unlike those weak, emotional women. Surely that’s why they make over 30% more than females on average; they've earned that gender wage gap.

Ok, breathe Christina, stay calm. Ignore the irony of a sexist review of a paper on the gender differences in the transition to a postdoc position. Let’s focus on the scientific process. The first question that comes to mind for many people is “what if the reviewer’s right and it’s just bad science?” To which I respond, so what? If it’s bad science, point out where they’re wrong in the manuscript and tell them to deal with it. Do NOT insult the writers, regardless of gender, by telling them they need better people involved in their work. And especially don’t base the concept of “better people” on their genitalia. The blatant sexism is horrible on its own, but it’s not even backed up by an attempt at constructive criticism.

Almost as bad, where was the editor in all of this? There’s a reason for having a 2 step process for peer review. There’s no way such obviously prejudiced comments should have made it back to the authors. The good news is that the journal involved agrees and has taken steps to rectify the situation by removing the reviewer and editor.

So what does this mean for peer review process? This is a dramatic example of a broken system. Sure, not all reviewers are terrible people, but if the review process allows this to slip by sometimes, how much bias and discrimination is being caught and therefore hidden? Some people have tweeted to Dr. Head (Dr. Ingleby’s co-author), that we should move to an open review format.That is, everyone involved in scientific review knows who’s doing what.

I disagree. I think double blinded is the way to go. Open review could work if implicit bias didn’t exist, but it’s sneaky. You may not even know you view genders or races slightly differently and so how can you correct for it? I certainly didn’t realize I had these kinds of subtle biases until I took the Implicit Association Test. I highly recommend this quick but interesting test.

So we’re all human, we likely all have some sort of subconscious bias. Sure, we could try to overcome it and work around it, but I’m an advocate of keep it simple (stupid). Blind both parties of the peer review process and bypass focus on anything but the science itself. I’ve actually had one manuscript reviewed this way and, while a bit annoying, it’s quite often not too difficult on the author end of things.

However, this becomes a bigger problem when you're doing a follow-up study and want to cite your previous paper. How do you say "based on our previous results, we decided to look at..." without a reviewer in your field knowing who you are? Even specialized equipment or techniques can give away an author's identity. Despite these concerns, I still think it’s worth it. Sure, if a reviewer really wants to know whose work they're reviewing blindly, they'll figure out a way. But I'd prefer to think that they'd be more focused on evaluating my work, which could level the playing field for minorities and women.

This may be an illusion of fairness, but an article in Nature last summer suggests that double blinded reviews may be increasing in popularity. So obviously the world revolves around me and my opinions! Don't worry, I’ll solve all the world problems, right? Friends? Is that laughter I hear??