Rude paper reviews disproportionately harm minority groups

“This author’s status as a trans person has distorted his view of sex beyond the biological reality.”

“The first author is a woman. She should be in the kitchen, not writing papers.”

“The author’s last name sounds Spanish. I didn’t read the manuscript because I’m sure it’s full of bad English.”

These are just a few examples of unprofessional peer review comments appearing in a new PeerJ study.

The remarks were left anonymously by referees assigned to review manuscripts submitted to scientific journals for publication. 

Researchers Nyssa J. Silbiger​​ and Amber D. Stubler surveyed 1,106 scientists from 46 countries and 14 different STEM fields. More than half (58 per cent) said they had received at least one “unprofessional” anonymous review. Most of the participants (70 per cent) had been given more than one.

In the survey, “unprofessional” comments were defined as ones that:

  • Lack constructive criticism
  • Are directed at the author(s) rather than the nature or quality of the work
  • Use personal opinions of the author(s)/work rather than evidence-based criticism
  • Are “mean-spirited” or cruel

“Peer-reviewed research is paramount to the advancement of science. Ideally, the peer review process is an unbiased, fair assessment of the scientific merit and credibility of a study; however, well-documented biases arise in all methods of peer review,” reads an excerpt from the paper.

“Studies show that a negative perception of aptitude leads to lowered self-confidence, short-term disruptions in success and productivity and delays in career advancement. Therefore, our results indicate that unprofessional reviews likely have and will continue to perpetuate the gap in STEM fields for traditionally underrepresented groups in the sciences.”

(A) Representative career stages (N = 11), (B) scientific disciplines (N = 14) and (C) countries (N = 46) from survey participants. Color in subset (C) represents number of surveys from each country where white is 0. [SOURCE]

In an interview with Science, Stubler called the findings “disturbing”. Certain groups did not appear to be targeted, with all respondents receiving the reviews — but minority groups were disproportionately harmed by unnecessarily harsh comments.

According to Silibiger, white men were the least impacted by unprofessional reviews.

People of colour, white women, and non-binary respondents were more likely to experience feelings of self-doubt and reduced productivity. People of colour were also more likely to say negative comments delayed their career advancement, according to Science.

Peer-review comments are typically private but some journals have attempted to curb toxic behaviour by publishing the statements alongside final papers.

There have been calls to make all referees disclose their identities, but some critics fear referees could suffer professional retaliation from senior scientists if comments are unfavourable.

The study’s authors hope the findings will open a dialogue into making peer-review comments more professional.

They’re also calling for future studies to investigate the impact unprofessional reviews have on first-generation students, English as a second language students, and “other factors that could lead to differences in downstream effects.”

“Unprofessional peer reviews have no place in the scientific process and individual scientists have the power and responsibility to enact immediate change,” reads the paper.

“However, we recognize and applaud those reviewers and editors (and there are many!) that spend a significant amount of time and effort writing thoughtful, constructive, and detailed criticisms that are integral to moving science forward.”

Read the full paper here.

Examples of unprofessional peer reviews from survey respondents.
Permission to publish these comments was given by respondents who certified their accuracy. SOURCE:
DOI: 10.7717/peerj.8247/fig-1


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