Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why it's sexist that top-tier papers are the unspoken requirement

Lately I've been having to explain this a lot, so I figured hey why not blog about it.

1. Nobody tells you it's a requirement

The thing about unspoken rules is that the in-crowd shares them with their proteges. The auslanders argue among themselves about whether there really are rules or not.

2. Publishing is sexist

Yeah, you can argue, but it's actually true that unconscious bias affects everything, including the supposedly objective non-blinded reviewing of papers. See for example this study .

Women, you should know that you are automatically at risk if your name sounds female, or if you're in a field where people know who you are.

Speaking with 5 women in different fields, we discovered that our papers were all trashed by reviewers in very unprofessional ways. We all thought we were the exception, until we noticed the pattern.

In one case, an observation from a male peer said it all (same age, same field, same tier publishing experience, who thought the work was really solid): "I've never seen reviews like this."

We all looked at each other.

Damn right you haven't. You have no idea.

3. Submitting papers is sexist

Within your own lab, you might experience what I've experienced over and over and over again.

First, my PIs have consistently undervalued my work (even as people from other labs were impressed by it), but nobody seemed to understand this. I felt like that guy who couldn't speak for 23 years because the doctors thought he was in a coma - screaming, trying to find a way to make people notice.

I did more work, and more quality work, than some of my male peers, and equal work to other male peers. And yet the men were systematically favored with opportunities to submit their papers to top-tier journals.

Then, when I had been forced to wait and wait and wait, I was told I couldn't submit to the same journals while the men's papers were still in review (which takes about a year, if you're talking about a top-tier journal and revisions).

Again, you could make all kinds of excuses for why this was the case, but it was pretty clear what my male peers had in common with our advisers to get these advantages in the first place: their favorite activities involved drinking, watching sports, and discussing the physical attributes of women's bodies. And because my male peers got more informal face-time, they had more chances to plug their work and keep themselves high on the radar.

Second, our PIs wanted to protect us from the heartache and frustration and length of time it takes to publish in top-tier journals. I'm not making this up. They told us we should plan to have babies; that it would take too long; that we weren't up for the fight; that we should go to industry; that we should run core facilities; that we should teach.

Third, they lied to us. They said it didn't matter. Simultaneously, they were advising our male peers on what other experiments they needed to do to get their papers accepted at top-tier journals when the time came, positioning them for success. Why were they telling us one thing while telling the men something else?


So when study sections and hiring committees decide that these papers are the mark of the best scientists, we should be asking ourselves, why?

Q: Do we really think the editors at these journals are the best scientists of all?
A: No.

Q: Have the editors at these journals themselves published extensively in these journals?
A: No.

Q: Have the study section members and hiring committees themselves published in these journals in order to get where they are now?
A: No.

Q: Is there double-blinded review, for the most objective evaluation?
A: No.

So why is this held up as the ultimate criteria of a qualified scientist?

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At 2:28 PM, Blogger Confident Female Scientist said...

I love this post!!!
They have shown this time and again, so if we're really scientists "come the fuck on"! Can't we learn?

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous thoughtcounts Z said...

Great post, thoroughly explained. Thank you! You've given me a lot of food for thought.

While I'm here though, I have to point you to a bit more information on that man in a coma, if you haven't seen it yet, because the story is so tragic. It really looks like it was just so-called facilitated communication in this case, meaning this poor man is being used as a puppet. Don't get me wrong -- locked-in syndrome is horrific and your analogy is understood. I just... gotta say.

At 5:27 PM, Blogger FrauTech said...

Ain't that the truth. Too bad there IS no double-blind way to verify this crap. I always get the questions about what inspired me to go into my field. Questions I know my male colleagues aren't asked. Or when I'm tasked to a project, The Spanish Inquisition inevitably shows up and asks why I've been tasked to it. They never ask why any of the dudes on the project were tasked with it...just me. But of course, I can't just show up in a man-suit tomorrow to test my theories.

At 11:39 PM, Blogger Bee said...

Well, I recommend only using an initial for the first name. It inevitably has the effect that the reviewers think I'm male and address me with "he."

At 10:32 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

a) definitely use initials. Whose business is it what your first name is? It does help remove the unconcious gender blindness (word of warning, though - if your initial is M. and you get a Frech-language reviewer they may consider you to be a mere Monsieur and not a Dr which leads to a whole different kettle of biases)

b) this is a universal issue, but the extent is very much field specific. It's not 'top tier' journals so much in my field as simple 'number of papers in respectable (peer-reviewed, international circulation) journals. One CNS paper from a three year stint stands you in less stead than two decent papers a year...

c) Also, there are other reasons for biases in terms of supporting-to-publication than JUST gender - for example, I am continually fighting against my bias towards helping positive people with good writing skills over blamers (who never, EVER just have a bad week - everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault) and/or people who do not take account of comments or access the writing centre, whose writing does not improve (and the main culprits here are native speakers with Snowflake Syndrome - the worst writers in my group are NOT the academic visitor from an exotic country whose native language is completely alien to IndoEuropean, and who has never left her own country or spent time with a native English speaker for more than a few days before moving to my group. Oops, was that a rant? But as a supervisor, I have limited resources. I try to share them fairly but don't always succeed - and my group is small. It's a useful reminder to constantly reflect on what's going on and whether unconcious factors are at work in my choices... oh how I wish science was about science and not about managing/working with people!

At 3:57 PM, Blogger Kea said...

Using initials doesn't help when (a) people know your name (b) they Google your name or (c) your writing style betrays your isolation. Double blind reviews are the only way to go.

At 9:47 PM, Anonymous Cat said...

Thanks for the post! I'm interested in reading more, and tried to link to the study but couldn't seem to get it to work. Could you post more information about the study - where it is published and/or who conducted it?

At 5:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My PI handled the submission of one of my recent papers (he was first author) and was surprised when it was rejected immediately from a good-ranking journal where "he has an understanding" with the editors. Obviously the "understanding" is that his papers are favourably reviewed. It was creepy to be taken along for a ride on something where I felt that my work should have been able to stand on its own.

At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, the link to the study about gender-blindness seems to be broken - could you repost? Thanks.

At 8:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Double blind is the way to go for benefiting WOMEN, not men who consistently rely on their boyz clubz and name recognition for acceptance of their shitty ass papers. Good luck convincing majority-male editorial boards that double-blind is the way to go! The journal Animal Behaviour is one of the few I know that has double-blind review system, and it also has a woman co-editor in chief. woot!

There are also ways to "sneak around" and game the double-blind system, like using (AuthorDudeLastname, unpublished) and (OldFogieDudeCoauthorLastname, in press) to drop hints in the text about who could be in the author line of the submitted paper. Gamers also cite themselves and their cronies out the wazoo to hint, hint, wink, tip off reviewers about authorship.

Women, GET YOUR ASSES ON EDITORIAL BOARDS! If you have a decent pub record, write the editor chief of a relevant journal and ask if they need any editors. If you know anyone personally on the review board, you can also ask them. Most journals really do need more editors, if no, then ask the editor to add your name to the reviewer system. Yes, it's more work for women, yadda yadda, but changes for women aren't gonna magically happen at the hands and dicks of men.

At 7:49 AM, Anonymous lost academic said...

I already use initials, but it's a little awkward because my last name is only 4 characters long. Regardless, you can't actually Google my name as there is a prominent doctor/professor that would prevent any mention of me for many years from showing up.

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon, Cat- If you have Science Direct, the link should work for you (?).

Here's the info:

Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors

Amber E. Budden1, 2, E-mail The Corresponding Author, Tom Tregenza3, Lonnie W. Aarssen4, Julia Koricheva5, Roosa Leimu6 and Christopher J. Lortie7

Trends in Ecology & Evolution
Volume 23, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 4-6

jc- good points about sneaking. It would only work if this sort of thing were also sanitized/disallowed.

great suggestion about women editors- although in my experience, it's mostly women editors at these high-impact journals (in my field) who send along these completely unprofessional reviews. So they are no help unless they are a) enlightened b) scientists.

Anon - oh, this sounds familiar. The irony is when they say they're helping you and then it blows up in your face AND theirs. In my case, this only put more fuel on the fire for my adviser to resent me- as if it was MY fault that his "understanding" fell through!

At 11:43 AM, Blogger yajeev said...

"Again, you could make all kinds of excuses for why this was the case, but it was pretty clear what my male peers had in common with our advisers to get these advantages in the first place: their favorite activities involved drinking, watching sports, and discussing the physical attributes of women's bodies. And because my male peers got more informal face-time, they had more chances to plug their work and keep themselves high on the radar."

Perhaps it is because I am in fact male and hardly drink or discuss the mentioned physical attributes or perhaps I am incredibly naive or perhaps I am unwittingly on the outs, but I have never witnessed this in any of the labs (at an unknown small liberal arts university, big city school, or big name school) I have been a part of.

To the extent that this does occur, it is a tragedy.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

"...our papers were all trashed by reviewers in very unprofessional ways."

I'm interested to hear more about that, if possible. (I'm quite behind in my blog reading, so if you've written about it before, please just direct us all to the appropriate link.)

At 7:24 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Unbalanced - Good question. This is one of the many would-be entertaining topics that are also very hard to blog about.

Let's just say for now that certain ways of writing about authors' identities, even in a non-anonymous review setting, is unprofessional. The unwarranted use of pronouns (I think a few of us have blogged a bit about how using "she" instead of a name or a title is yet another subtle form of sneering; in this case instead of "the authors" or Dr. Name).

For example. That last one is easy to check for- I've done a cursory check of a few papers and I can only hope that someone will do a real analysis of this and publish it (hint hint, sociologist readers!).

yajeev- Hardly drinking in these labs would consign you automatically to
the out-group.

Also, your point about "to the extent that this does occur" - it doesn't have to occur much to create problems.

Even if it only occurs sometimes - a few parties a year, or a few meetings a year - it's enough to constitute a HUGE advantage in bonding & favors.

At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two things--

First, I don't know if it's because of my gender, but I was once left off a paper/held to different standards than other students. My contribution was different and should have been valued, I had been on the project longer, but my name didn't make it on the paper (with about 40 co-authors). I have no idea if any of this may have stemmed from my being female. I doubt that part does, but perhaps the disagreement with my advisor would have gone differently if I were a man. It probably wouldn't have been seen as bitchy, but more asking for what I deserved.

Second, our journal clubs go as follows- someone is tasked each week with picking a paper for the rest of us to read on the topic of the next seminar. Last week, we read a paper & as usual, it got trashed. But everyone referred to the author as "he" when in fact it was a single author (somewhat rare in my field) female graduate student. This irked me. I'm still trying to get my brain around that one.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Dr Becca, PhD said...

The reviews for my most recent revised manuscript came with a LONG letter from the managing editor claiming that for them to accept the manuscript as it was, they would have to "lower the standards of the journal". Who says that??? My PI (arguably a card-carrying member of the Old Boys' Club) said he'd never seen anything like that in a review, ever. It was inappropriate, unprofessional, and unnecessary. How about the standard "our reviewers still have several concerns that must be addressed before we can proceed with publication"? Obviously I have no idea whether comments like this had anything to do with my gender, but it does make me wonder...


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