Excessively scathing, mean or critical comments received through peer review may have more of an effect on women and ethnic minority researchers. An anonymous survey of more than 1000 scientists found that these people were more likely to question their scientific aptitude after receiving such comments, whereas white men were more likely to say that they didn’t see unpleasant comments as reflective of their scientific ability.
Peer review involves scientists anonymously assessing the work of other researchers as part of the processes of publishing journal papers and choosing which research proposals to award funding.
Sometimes, peer review comments can be personally hurtful. To investigate how often this happens and the effect such comments may have, Nyssa Silbiger at California State University and Amber Stubler at Occidental College, also in California, surveyed 1106 researchers from 46 countries and 14 different science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Silbiger and Stubler asked specifically about peer review comments that are “unprofessional”, which they defined as either lacking constructive criticism, directly targeting a scientist rather than their science or being “mean-spirited”.
Out of those who responded to the survey, 58 per cent said they had received such comments. Those reported included “what the authors have done is an insult to science” and “this paper is simply manure”.
Some reported comments that directly suggested a career change, such as “you should look closely at a career outside of science”.
Others reported comments that were overtly sexist, such as “the first author is a woman. She should be in the kitchen, not writing papers.” Another comment reportedly read: “Despite being a woman, [she] was trained by several leading men in the field and is thus likely adequately prepared to lead the proposed research.”
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The survey found that white men were just as likely as any other scientist to report receiving unprofessional peer review comments.
Silbiger and Stubler then asked respondents who had received such comments to rate how much these had made them question their own scientific aptitude, and the extent to which it had affected their later productivity.
Women were 2.3 times as likely as white men to say they fully doubted their scientific abilities after receiving unprofessional peer review comments.
Women of colour were the least likely to say that unprofessional comments had no impact on their career advancement.
Silbiger and Stubler told New Scientist they weren’t surprised by the results. “There are many barriers to equity for marginalised groups in STEM, and we ourselves have experienced unprofessional comments.”
Rachel Oliver of campaign group The Inclusion Group for Equity in Research in STEMM says: “Many female and BAME scientists suffer from imposter syndrome as a result of being minoritised, and unprofessional comments hence inevitably contribute to negative self-assessments.”
Leon Black at the University of Leeds, UK, says: “In my experience, most editors and editorial board members are frustrated, to say the least, by unprofessional reviews. In Advances in Cement Research, where I am editor, there is not a formal policy, but we do try to make sure that unprofessional comments are not passed on to authors.”
A spokesperson for the journal Nature says: “As a matter of policy, we do not suppress reviewers’ reports. Any comments that were intended for the authors are transmitted, regardless of what we may think of the content.” The Royal Society says that it edits peer review comments prior to sending them back to authors, for unprofessional language and anything that may be libellous.
A spokesperson for UK Research and Innovation, which awards research funding, says they “expect all peer review contributions to be professional, appropriate and unbiased. We constantly keep our guidelines under review to ensure that our processes remain fair and robust and that no group is disadvantaged.”
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