The Unveiling of Sexism In Academia

I like to think of science as a torchbearer for human evolution. Oh, well… Call me romantic. I am a woman after all, and I can’t help but having oh so many feelings.

I have previously shared my opinion on how there’s something really wrong with science these days, but recent events blew my mind in that regard, showing me how some “scientific minds” are still stuck in the Middle Ages.

Some of you might have come across this story: in a nutshell, an anonymous peer reviewer suggested that an article written by two female researchers should include at least one male author to validate the data. In the reviewer’s own words:

“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), in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically biased assumptions.”

Yeah, this happened.

Fiona Ingleby is a research fellow in evolution, behavior and environment at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, and Megan Head is a postdoctoral researcher at the Australian National University; these authors submitted a paper to PLOS ONE that addressed gender differences in the transition from PhD to postdoc, showing through a survey of 244 people with a PhD in biology that there is gender bias in academia.

As Fiona Ingleby told Retraction Watch:

“We found that men finished their PhDs with more other-author papers than women, but no difference in number of first-author publications. Then we found that the number of publications affected how long it took PhD grads to successfully find a postdoc job – but this effect differed between men and women.”

As can be read in Fiona Ingleby’s Twitter feed and on Times Higher Education’s website, the review they received was absolutely blockheaded, unprofessional, and incredibly sexist.

The anonymous reviewer argued that “it could perhaps be the case that 99% of female scientists make a decision in mid-life that spending more time with their children is more important to them than doing everything imaginable to try to get one of the rare positions at the utter pinnacle of their field.” Condescending much?

“Or perhaps it is the case that only some small portion of men (and only men) have the kind of egomaniac personality disorder that drives them on to try to become the chief of the world at the expense of all else in life.” Sarcastic much?

Another incredibly insightful comment: “So 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 race a bit faster than female doctoral students.” Dumb much?

“As unappealing as this may be to consider, another possible explanation would be that on average the first-authored papers of men are published in better journals than those of women, either because of bias at the journal or because the papers are indeed of a better quality, on average… And it might well be that on average men publish in better journals perhaps simply because men, perhaps, on average work more hours per week than women, due to marginally better health and stamina.” Idiotic much?

Maybe it’s just my angry womb speaking, but I’d say that perhaps making remarks that on average are so obtuse may, perhaps, on average be due to the (marginally) worse IQ of this reviewer.

Meanwhile, PLOS ONE has issued an announcement saying: “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.”

Most journals use a single-blind review system, with reviewers remaining anonymous while knowing author’s identities, but many have argued for the need of either double-blind reviews or full identity disclosure on both sides for the sake of transparency.

Another appalling detail in this story highlights this need; as Fiona Ingleby told Retraction Watch: “the reviewer acknowledged that they had looked up our websites prior to reading the manuscript (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. Megan and I are both postdocs, but have about 20 years research experience and 40 published papers between us, so not exactly junior. Besides, it irks me that the review is so clearly influenced by this personal assessment rather than being based on the quality of the manuscript.”

One good thing may come from this mess: PLOS ONE stated that they are reviewing their processes to guarantee that future authors receive fair and unprejudiced reviews. They announced that they 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. Maybe other journals will follow the lead.

The most incredibly ironic outcome of this review is how amidst all its dumbness it manages to illustrate the main point of the article it refutes: that there is indeed blatant gender bias in academia and that it needs to catch up to the 21st century as soon as possible.


Else, Holly (30 April 2015). ‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online. Times Higher Education. Accessed online 7 May, 2015.

amarcus41 (29 April, 2015). It’s a man’s world – for one peer reviewer at least. Retraction Watch. Accessed online 7 May, 2015.

Pattinson, Damien (1 May, 2015). PLOS ONE Update on Peer Review Process. Accessed online 7 May, 2015.

Image via iofoto / Shutterstock.

Sara Adaes, PhD

Sara Adaes, PhD, has been a researcher in neuroscience for over a decade. She studied biochemistry and did her first research studies in neuropharmacology. She has since been investigating the neurobiological mechanisms of pain at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto, in Portugal. Follow her on Twitter @saradaes
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