Sexism in STEM Publishing

I am resharing the comments I made on Jonathan Eisen’s Google+ thread about yet another example of sexism in STEM. In case you missed it yesterday, Jonathan’s colleague, Jillian Buriak, tweeted that a sexist photo had been attached as a graphical abstract in the Journal of Proteomics. The photo has nothing to do with science, but it is used as a way to “sex up” the journal article and entice readers to click on the paper. Various scientists took to Twitter to lobby to have the image pulled down. As it turns out, the authors have tried this sexist marketing of their papers before. 

Rajini Rao was one of the scientists who wrote to the lead author and editors to ask for the image to be taken down. The author dismissed Rajni’s email, saying:

Hello Prof. Rao,

I wonder if you have been trained in the Vatican. As you claim to be professor of Physiology, let  me alert you that this image is physiology at its best!

Take care,

Prof. Dr. Pier Giorgio Righetti” [My emphasis]

After a day of furious communications by the Twitter science community, the editor finally took the paper down, but they haven’t issued an official apology. The editor did write to one of the scientists who complained, issuing a “non apology”:

Dear Colleague,

Thanks for kindly letting me know that a graphical abstract published in Journal of Proteomics is getting unwelcome publicity. Although I, personally, do not think that the alluded images are sexist (as well as I would not consider it sexist if a man were represented), at least this was_ neither the intention of the authors nor of the editor, I cn agree that this knid of images may be inappropriate for illustrating a scientific paper, and consequently have asked our journal manager to remove them. If anyone has been offended, officially apologize for that, and I hope to give settle the case as soon as possible to devote to the lab, which is what should take me up most of the day.



Prof. Juan J. Calvete” [My emphasis] 

While the images were taken down, several issues remain. First, it’s clear from the author’s response that he lacks basic awareness about what sexism is. This is one of the biggest barriers we face in STEM: people think that sexism is about obvious discrimination, where evil men twirl their moustaches and  physically assault women. The author’s response to Rajini suggested that she must lack a sense of humour and that she must be a puritan (trained “in the Vatican”). This conflates the private enjoyment of sexuality (no one’s business where it concerns consenting adults) with the inappropriate use of women as sexual objects to sell science (this is everyone’s business as it hurts STEM). In a professional context, this is never okay, whether intended in jest or otherwise.

Second, the editor’s response is the usual non-apology we see in science publishing when it comes to sexism. The “sorry if anyone took offence” approach absolves the editor and authors from the real issue at hand, which is that sexism is never permissible, under any circumstances. The fact that these authors have gotten away with this on so many occasions shows a gender awareness blindspot on behalf of the editorial board and publisher, Elsevier. They clearly do not have guidelines or policies in place to address sexism in their publishing. Again: this is not okay. It rends sexism invisible. It leaves it up to the scientific community to police itself. Changes need to come not just from “bottom up” with us organising online complains, but also top down, from our institutions, publishers and professional bodies. Being reactive to sexism is just not good enough.

In the end, this is yet another example where sexism is treated as an individual issue: someone needs to “take offence” and raise a storm before something is done. That gives the impression that it’s a smaller problem than what it is, and we know that’s not the case from the literature on hiring, promoting diversity, conference participation, funding and every other aspect of STEM.

Thanks to Jonathan and his colleague, Jillian Buriak, for bringing this particular case to everyone’s attention.

Read the excellent conversation on Jonathan’s original Google+ post.

It’s also worth reading Professor Isis’ response:

15 thoughts on “Sexism in STEM Publishing

  1. I never thought that a science journal would stoop this low to get attention for an article. Seems like a crazy idea and even crazier that the editors even came up with it. Though their email shows how immature they are – let’s hope the attention they are now getting means it won’t happen again…


  2. Agreed Tecno Tecnonaut. I’m fairly certain the paper was pay per view but since it’s been taken down I’m not 100% sure. If it was, given one of the authors is on the editorial board, it raises even more dilemmas. Either way this is the worst kind of marketing, especially for science.


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