There are many reasons a Peer reviewer can choose to reject a paper. Bad methodology, poorly presented experiments, poor communication. But rejecting a paper because you don’t think the authors are the right gender ? That’s a new one for me.

Fiona Ingleby, a geneticist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom was surprised to find the gender of her and her co-authors was brought up during the peer review process.

She posted some select chunks from the peer review to twitter.

Here are a few choice quotes from the peer review :

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It would probably also 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

What next ? A rainbow coalition of different races/genders/sexuality needs to review every paper before publication ?

Oh, wait, it gets better:-

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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

In a further correspondence with retraction watch, this came out :

... 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. 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.

The manuscript itself wasn’t, in my view, overly controversial, and Megan and I had it read and commented on by a number of colleagues (male and female) who agreed that the discussion was balanced and fair, so this reviewer’s reaction was quite shocking and unexpected. In a nutshell, 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. It was interesting, but as it used survey data, it was difficult to gain anything conclusive behind the results – so our discussion was pretty open.

What’s more damning was that the paper was rejected on the strength of this review alone. What’s more, it suffers from “vague review” syndrome. Where peer reviewers are deliberately vague (“I don’t know what’s wrong, I just don’t like it” style ), making any manuscript amendment impossible.

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At this moment, we don’t know the full story. We don’t even know which Journal handled this peer review. The most we have is an admission from PLOS that it was from one of their journals, and that they have heard the complaint.

If an Editor decided that this kind of thing was appropriate for a review, then they aren’t doing their job. Irrationally hostile peer reviewers are part and parcel of peer review. Editors are the filter that is meant to figure out when a Peer reviewer is not on the level, and boot them. This is completely out of order.

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Full disclosure: I never consult normal human beings before posting anything.

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