The Big Lie of science

The venom may arise because some people are deeply invested in a narrative of persistent and pervasive bias against women in academic science, perhaps because of ideological beliefs in the ubiquity of gender discrimination. Some people may be attempting to salve their disappointment at a job market that keeps thousands of well-qualified people from having the careers they want and worked for. “It’s tempting to blame gender when you don’t get a job and you’re a woman,” [Wendy] Williams says. “It’s easier … than to admit that the entire premise of what you’ve done for the past 7 years of your life was flawed at the root.”

LEGO Jesus turning over the money-changing tables in the Temple. (OK, you try to illustrate a post like this.) [Credit: The Brick Testament]
So writes Beryl Lieff Benderly in Science Careers, another article about the study I covered recently. It’s a frustrating piece for a number of reasons, not least of which is the implication that those of us who criticized it (who are never named or our concerns directly addressed) are doing so out of ideological bias rather than analysis of methodology and discussion of other research. None of our articles were quoted, linked, or even mentioned by name. In her article, Benderly called critics “non-scholarly”, even though that group includes sociologists, education researchers, psychologists, and other academics of various stripes. (I’m no longer in academia, but as I have a PhD in physics and astronomy, with years of research and college teaching under my belt, I feel I do have some scholarly credentials.) I suppose we’re non-scholarly because we responded in popular media rather than in journal articles, but then again, Williams and coauthor Stephen Ceci took their case directly to CNN, while their critics were lumped in with science deniers and misogynists who attack Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign for reasons of her gender.

Yes, there is emotion involved: it’s incredibly frustrating to see studies like this getting tons of positive press, while all the other research shows that hiring is not where the major problem of sexism lies. Yes, many women got angry when other research and their own experiences contradict nearly every strong conclusion drawn in this study, but that anger doesn’t make them wrong. (The Williams quote above basically says that things are so biased in your favor if you’re a woman, if you don’t have a science job, it must really be because you suck. She shouldn’t be surprised if many women take umbrage at that.) Yes, arguably ideology does play a role: if I were not a left-leaning feminist writer who strongly believes in fair representation in science, I likely wouldn’t have paid any attention to this story in the first place.

But I feel there’s another theme running in this story, one that was also highlighted yesterday. Fiona Ingleby, a postdoctoral researcher in genetics, and her colleague Megan Head submitted a paper to a scientific journal for review in hopes of publication. It’s how things go in research: you perform research, write your results up in an article, and submit it to a journal, where other researchers who are knowledgeable evaluate it in a process known as peer review. If it passes that review, the journal publishes the article, and you can add that to your credentials when applying for jobs, asking for a promotion, or bragging to your mates in the pub. (OK, that last one probably only works if your mates are also in academic research.) In academia, the one who dies with the most publications wins. People I know hate the process, but it’s the way things are right now: play the game, or leave academia.

I say all this because it places a lot of power in the hands of journals and, to a lesser degree, peer-reviewers. Ingleby and Head got a comment back from one of their reviewers that read in part:

…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 based assumptions.

In other words, this anonymous reviewer concluded on their own authority that research performed by two women automatically runs the risk of being ideological, for gender reasons. Not qualifications: Ingleby and Head hold PhDs and (as Ingleby notes) between them have over 40 publications. It’s doubtful the reviewer would have asked for two male authors to add a female coauthor — especially given that many scientific papers published still have no female authors, even with multiple researchers contributing to them. But it’s the journal I find the real fault with: whatever editor thought it was appropriate to pass this comment along to Ingleby and Head was severely in the wrong. The journal abdicated their responsibility and placed the onus for responding to an openly sexist comment on the authors of the paper, a comment unrelated to the topic of the paper.

As Rachel Feltman points out in the Washington Post, “if we’re taking this reviewer’s assessment at face value, the reviewer thought the study was so hopeless that it wasn’t even worth offering constructive criticism — which, for the record, is something an author expects when his or her manuscript is rejected — and that only some dudes could redeem it.” The reviewer also described how they had investigated the authors’ backgrounds, something that’s within their rights — it’s not a bad idea to know the qualifications of the people you’re reviewing — but in the context of their comments it feels a little creepy to me, an academic version of “I know where you live, that’s a nice cat you have”: I looked you up, you aren’t good enough for me, I will sit in judgement over your entire career.

Here’s why that matters: responses to journals take time and energy. These things are a normal part of academic life, but Ingleby and Head shouldn’t have to do it in this case. They shouldn’t have to justify their gender and their expertise to satisfy an anonymous person’s prejudices, and the journal should have stepped in to shut that reviewer down. Postdoctoral researchers (usually just abbreviated as “postdocs”) are in a kind of a limbo state. If you’re research-focused (as opposed to primarily teaching-focused, the path I followed), you follow the formal training of graduate school where you earn your PhD or other degree with postdoctoral fellowships, which ideally allow you to publish enough research papers to land you a permanent position as a faculty member at a university, or some other skilled research work. Having to respond to irrelevant criticisms wastes time and energy these women could be using to do more research they can use to further their careers, something men (at least white men) in similar positions wouldn’t have to cope with. The journal screwed up, badly, and thanks to the way they screwed up, they have to work extra hard to assure everyone they can be trusted to evaluate any papers fairly.

The connection between this story and the Science Careers piece I opened with is part of the Big Lie of science. Science at its heart is about evidence; the practice of science, however, is about humans. A sexist reviewer can waste a female researcher’s time for reasons completely unrelated to her research, and a journal can abet the practice — making scientific publication an accomplice to academic sexism. As long as there are sexist people in power who can get away with messing with people’s lives, science is sexist. The same goes with race, with sexual orientation, with sexual and gender identity, with marital status, with having children or not, with affiliation with native groups, with anything that might be considered by some people suspect, even if in the idealized world of SCIENCE it should be irrelevant.

And these people can do real damage. If Ingleby hadn’t gone public with the anonymous reviewer’s comments, who knows what the results might have been, and who knows how many stories are out there like this we don’t hear about? The journal could allow the reviewer’s comments to stand as written, forcing Ingleby and Head to submit their paper elsewhere. This same reviewer might vote to deny female colleagues promotions, or set up other obstacles in their way. That person may just wear down women with small persistent slights on their abilities, their commitments, whether they’re “letting their emotions” get in the way of their work. At best, that’s tiring to deal with, and at worst, it can prevent women from gaining senior positions or drive them from the field.

The Big Lie of Science is that it doesn’t matter who does the science, as long as the research is sound. The truth is that scientists judge each other’s work through their own prejudices, and the Lie lets them get away with it. The Lie lets people remain silent when they see their colleagues being mistreated, because “personality shouldn’t matter”. The Lie absolves us of responsibility to do anything about discrimination and hostile environments for anyone who doesn’t neatly fit the mold created for white, straight, cisgendered men and those they approve of.

UPDATE: The journal referenced above turned out to be PLOS ONE; the editorial board made a strong statement today repudiating the behavior of both the reviewer and the editor who let the sexist review through. They even hinted that they may do away with anonymous peer-reviewing, since there’s some evidence that if the reviewer can’t hide behind anonymity, they are more judicious in their comments. Another possible solution is double-blind peer review, where the reviewer doesn’t know the names of the authors they’re evaluating; both of these methods have their pros and cons, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Either way: I’m happy to see PLOS ONE taking positive action.


9 responses to “The Big Lie of science”

  1. The whole discussion is worthless without knowing the actual paper. What is its quality? Would other “non sexist” reviewers have a different opinion?

    1. I don’t know (and can’t know) what the quality of the research is. Maybe it wasn’t worthy of publication; plenty of work isn’t. However, by making the review about the paper’s authors rather than about the quality of the research, the reviewer forfeited their integrity in this matter. They declared that *who* wrote the paper was what mattered to them (and lectured the authors about why men are better at science than women), rather than the content. So no, this discussion isn’t worthless without knowing the paper. If the paper was crap, the authors deserved to hear methodological arguments on how to improve it, rather than just “I have an explanation for why men are better at science than women, and you should have a male coauthor on your work”.

  2. Also, much of the time high-quality peer review aims at anonymity: blind review. Usually you can figure out whose paper you’re reviewing, and with book manuscripts you tend to be told the author’s name up-front, but with journal articles, this information is commonly withheld. This was a busted review process in all kinds of ways.

  3. No, the discussion isn’t “worthless” without knowing the paper. Here’s a hint, in case you missed it: “science is at its heart about evidence: the practice of science, however, is about humans.”

    Reviewers are human. They may be tired, or distracted, or stressed, or drunk when they review a paper; they may be elated because they just won a big grant, or got tenure, or finished teaching for the year. They make errors.

    They also make assessments about the quality of work that is colored by the status of the person who wrote the paper, or who they believe wrote the paper. Scientists evaluate CVs for lab manager positions differently depending on whether the CV suggests the applicant is male or female. They use communal words in their letters of recommendation for women, and agentic words in their letters of recommendation for men, even given the same # & quality of pubs. There’s a lot of evidence of this, if you choose to read the science.

    Besides, even if the original paper was crap, that’s no excuse for the reviewer being a sexist ass-hat, or for the editor from abdicating his or her responsibility to suppress the review from a sexist ass-hat. If you review a weak paper, you identify, specifically, why it’s flawed. You focus on the substance of the paper, not the gender or employment status or prestige of the authors’ institution. If you think the paper’s discussion is “ideological,” you point out how and give examples. You don’t suggest that two women add a male coauthor or two so that the discussion section is “less ideological.”

  4. not the reviewer Avatar
    not the reviewer

    I don’t want to really make a “tu quoque” sort of an argument, but I wonder how it would be if a female reviewer had made the switched-gender suggestion to male authors, saying it would reduce their own bias.

    I can’t help but to think that it would have been even worthy of applause if it was made public. Feminist/most mainstream blogs and outlets would probably agree, that it would be an effective way to reduce gender bias in two ways at once, first by having more women as authors or co-authors to begin with, and secondly by having them acting as filters of gender bias.

    And I even think it’s sort of true, and so is in the other direction, as females can be gender-biased as well. But it’s not really a “solution”, as even in mixed-gender groups there could be an effect of social dominance (even unconsciously), which wouldn’t even necessarily be male dominance, even though it’s perhaps more likely it would be in most cases.

    Ideally the review would be a “gender-blind” process, focusing solely on the reasoning and the evidence, not on the authors, and perhaps not even on the reviewers.

    1. Any reviewer focusing on who wrote an article rather than its scientific merits is not doing their job. If a reviewer said to male authors that they should add a female coauthor, then proceeded to give unsubstantiated opinions on why their research was flawed, that reviewer would still be failing at their one job. (In terms of the gender of this reviewer: I think it’s reasonable to assume they are male based on the language they used, but we don’t know, which is why I tried to avoid gendering them in this piece.)

      But here’s the thing: men hold disproportionate power. It’s really common to find scientific papers without a single female coauthor (even for papers with 4 or 5 or 10 coauthors), but it’s rarer to find papers without a single male coauthor, though less rare than it once was.

      As for your last point: you’re describing double-blind peer review, which is certainly one possible way to mitigate gender bias. In that system, the reviewer only gets the paper text, not the names of the authors, so neither the reviewers nor the authors know who the other one is. PLOS ONE, which has been revealed as the journal at fault here, seems to be moving toward open peer review, where the reviewers’ names are released. The gamble there is that a reviewer would be less likely to be openly sexist if they knew their name would be made public. Both double-blind and open review have advantages and disadvantages, and I’m not sure which is better.

      1. BUT: to reiterate! The problem is less with the reviewer than with the journal. Yes, the reviewer was sexist and inappropriate, but the journal abdicated their responsibility to treat their authors in a professional manner. Changing the manner of peer review could help the problem, but the journal is still on the hook for managing how it handles assigning reviews and evaluating the reviewers’ responses.

  5. If I remember correctly, didn’t Ingleby and Head ask PLoS to take action about the review three weeks before going public with it? So it’s great that the journal took the right action in the end, but it makes one (well, me) wonder what took so long. What is their process for editor oversight like, such that an open-and-shut case like this goes unnoticed for three weeks?

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