Two female biologists have been told by a reviewer it would be 'beneficial' if their latest manuscript was co-authored by male colleagues, sparking widespread online backlash.
Evolutionary biologists Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head had submitted a manuscript for peer review, only to be told that their paper was rejected and needed male co-authors.
Ms Ingleby, a researcher at the University of Sussex in the UK, submitted her paper investigating gender differences, but was told it would be "beneficial" if she had one or two male biologists involved.
"It would probably also be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors)," the reviewer reportedly wrote.
"... Perhaps it is not so surprising that on average, male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile race a bit faster than female doctoral student."
Shocked, Ms Ingleby tweeted two excerpts from the reviewer:
Ms Ingleby co-authored her paper with Australian National University researcher Megan Head.
She told SBS: "At first I just couldn't believe what I was reading. My mind was trying to make sense of it, and I kept trying to rationalise it. Perhaps it was a joke? Perhaps they really were trying to be helpful in some weird way?
"Then I showed it to colleagues (male and female) in my department to get a fresh perspective and they were unanimously outraged. In addition to the sexist comments, the tone of the review was condescending and it offered no concrete suggestions for how to improve the manuscript. That is not acceptable in peer review."
It has been revealed the journal in question was PLOS ONE. They have since apologised.
PLOS said in a statement: "PLOS regrets the tone, spirit and content of this particular review. We take peer review seriously and are diligently and expeditiously looking into this matter. The appeal is in process.
"PLOS allows Academic Editors autonomy in how they handle manuscripts, but we always follow up if concerns are raised at any stage of the process. Our appeals policy also means that any complaints of the review process can be fully addressed and the author given opportunity to have their paper re-reviewed."
The pair had launched an appeal against the rejection three weeks ago, but Ms Ingleby and Ms Head decided to take to social media when they received no answer. The only correspondence they received was an email apologising for the delay. "We didn't want this to get swept under the carpet," Ms Head told SBS.
Ms Ingleby's and Ms Head's tweets attracted widespread disbelief and dismay.
Being a Twitter novice, Ms Megan told SBS the wave of online support was "completely unexpected".
"I even emailed five or six colleagues that do tweet to tell them we were posting this to ensure that at least someone saw the tweets.
"My co-author posted the tweets at about 11pm aest, when I woke up in the morning it had gone ballistic. Sexism potentially affects over 50 per cent of the population, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised."
Ms Head said the journal PLOS has agreed to reconsider their manuscript. It will be handled by new editors and sent out for independent review.