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The Sciences

Sexist Peer Review and The Role of Editors

NeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticMay 1, 2015 1:46 AM

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Open access scientific publishing giant PLoS is under fire after an anonymous peer reviewer commissioned by one of their journals advised the (female) authors to "find one or two male biologists" to help improve their manuscript. The two women are Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head - who, as it happens, I recently interviewed for the PLoS Neuro blog on an unrelated topic. (I should note that PLoS paid me for that review and for the three others I've written for them. I have also peer reviewed for PLoS ONE.) Retraction Watch has more on the case. There's been a lot said about this on Twitter and elsewhere, and some people have raised the point that if the reviewer were not anonymous, they might have felt more accountable, and would not have written these things. But to me this misses the point. Anonymous peer review doesn't mean that no-one is accountable: the editors should be. Yes, this peer reviewer, whoever they are, wrote a terrible review. But they didn't send this review to Ingleby and Head. Reviewers don't communicate with authors directly. The reviewer sent it to the editor who was handling the paper, and then he or she sent it to the authors. Quite simply the editor should have refused to accept this review, and should not have passed it on, commissioning another reviewer if necessary to make up the numbers. Instead the editor did pass on the review. Does that make them a sexist too? I suspect not. Far more likely, he or she just passed it on without reading it. Which is wrong. Unfortunately, this seems to be all too common. Editors are not supposed to be a mere relay service, shuttling messages between the authors and the reviewers, but in my personal experience, many are. Nor should they just tally up the positive vs. the negative reviews and go with the majority opinion. Editorship is a scientific activity, not just a bureaucratic one. Editors should not 'outsource' the scientific issues to the peer reviewers, but rather, engage with them themselves. On the other hand, editors shouldn't just dispense with reviewers and make decisions themselves, because then their journal becomes a personal fiefdom. The peer-reviewed journal system, rather like the judge-and-jury system, relies on a balanced tension.

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