Friday, May 1, 2015

Ewan sends me an important note

Hi all,

Some of you might have seen this incident a few days ago at a PLoS journal ( in which a reviewer recommended that the authors "find male coauthors". The authors appealed, and the incident is being investigated by the journal. The PLoS central offices have now asserted that they are using this opportunity to explore different models of peer review.

Since many of us talk about problems with peer review (a lot), a few of us have decided to circulate a statement to PLoS thank them for reviewing their policies, to assert that we take the issue seriously, and that we are watching the response closely.

It's also stirred up a debate between double-blind reviewing and fully open reviewing. Without pushing for any particular model, this letter says that holding reviewers responsible and protecting identities are things that people both want for good reasons, and points out that the two aren't mutually exclusive.

A link to the text and a form add your name is below. If you choose to endorse it, please circulate it in your professional networks. We will freeze the names and affiliations in a few days and list them on a text version we send on to PLoS and post publicly.

Thanks, and all the best -ewan

***Link to text and endorsement form ***


To the PLoS Editorial Offices:

We were dismayed to hear about a recent incident in which a submission to one of your journals received a sexist review. The submission was investigating gender differences in academic publishing and career advancement. The reviewer suggested that, in order to compensate for possible ideological bias, the authors "find one or two male biologists to work with," or have, "better yet, as active co-authors." The reviewer acknowledged looking up the authors' personal websites as part of the review. This isn't okay.

We thank the PLoS journals for using this opportuntity to revisit their review policies. We urge you to take the issue seriously, because we do two. There are at least two issues highlighted by this incident.

First, everyone involved in the publishing process needs to be protected from unfair and demeaning treatment. Reviewers have a right to be protected from disgruntled authors, (for example, by anonymity), but this must not come at the expense of authors' rights to fair and respectful treatment, free of personal harassment.

Second, reviewers need to be held responsible for their reviews. We, even in our role as reviewers, are not comfortable with a situation in which anonymity is something that we can hide behind. As this incident shows, reviewers all too often feel they have nothing at stake if they write an unfair review. This wastes everyone's time and puts authors' careers in jeopardy.

In many fields it has long been the norm for journals to mask author names during the review process, which, while imperfect, has been demonstrated to reduce the ability of reviewers to identify the authors in medical journals to about a 40% success rate (Cho et al., 1998, "Masking author identity in peer review," JAMA 280:243–245). This reduces the possibility for harassment on the basis of author identity.

At the same time, many journals, including PLoS Medicine, have instituted systems for reviewer accountability. There is no clear winning model yet, but it seems completely possible to balance protection from harassment (for both reviewers and authors) with accountability of reviewers.

For example, double-blind peer review would not be incompatible with a model in which reviewer comments are released at publication time, even anonymously. As evidenced by the many public comments on this particular incident, any amount of transparency can bring the academic community to stand up publicly in favor of strong quality standards for reviews, which is a good thing.

There are, of course, potential problems for this or any system of peer review. But the current system is flawed. There are many problems in academic publishing today, and the PLoS journals stand out as forward thinking journals trying to change this. We are writing not to request a move to any particular system of peer review, but simply to request that PLoS journals revisit their systems of peer review, and consider new ideas, keeping in mind both the right to be free from harassment and the responsibility of those involved in the review process to be fair.

Ewan Dunbar
Postdoctoral researcher, BOOTPHON Team
Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique
Ecole Normale Supérieure / EHESS / CNRS
29, rue d’Ulm, Pavillon jardin
75005 Paris

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