A few weeks back, I submitted a review for an article submitted to MDPI involving an aspect of women’s health concerning a chronic pain condition (dyspareunia). Overall, I felt like it was a decent article on an area of women’s health that’s received only passing attention.
Unfortunately, the diagnostic history of dyspareunia is riddled by psychosomatic implications– still (shockingly) included within the DSM5 even today. This is perhaps unsurprising given that many aspects of female health are peppered with similar histories– many somehow overlapping with “female hysteria” either directly or through implication.
Given the medical-heavy and rational approach taken by the authors in this paper, I was surprised to find that they had excluded any women with psychiatric disorders– under the (I assume?) implication that somehow such conditions could affect the pain syndrome. The authors didn’t bother to explain their rationale, unfortunately. And before you start wondering whether psychiatric disorders were simply used as a proxy for use of neuromodulatory medications (which can influence pain syndromes), they listed such medication use as a separate exclusionary criterion.
So, as the good little women’s rights reviewer that I am, I pointed out this flaw in my review– noting that I had no intention of holding up publication because it did present important information that could be useful in women’s medicine. I did, however, request that the authors address this flaw. (Yes, this also involved a bit of a soapbox moment in my response, but I felt it necessary given the biases we continue to fight in women’s health and research.)
I went on my merry way for a few weeks, thinking I had done my duty. Then last week I received a message from the publishers informing me that the article has been published. So, I go and check out the article, looking for my requested edit. What do I find?
NOTHING. The article appears to have been published as-is.
I was completely livid and responded to the handling editor with these choice words:
Hi, Ms. [Name]. I had reviewed the below paper but recommend revision. What happened? I never received any further revisions for review and I can see that my suggestions for revision were completely ignored.
What was the purpose of my review if it was essentially not used??? This does not appear to be ethical behavior within the review process, particularly as my main request for revision involved addressing issues surrounding discrimination of females with psychiatric disorders.
I will not be accepting further review requests if this is the process to which the MDPI adheres. I also want my name stricken from this paper as reviewer, wherever it is associated.
This is COMPLETELY inappropriate behavior by your editorial team and I will be discussing this with relevant advocacy parties, as well as contacting your publisher.
And so I waited…
Monday morning, I received a follow-up email from a different (presumably higher-up-the-ladder) editor. She explained to me that minor revisions are typically not sent back to the reviewer for an additional round of review but are simply handled by the editor.
That’s fine (er, I suppose? Not really…). But that wasn’t even my main issue. My requested edits hadn’t been made at all.
And so I followed this with another poignant email:
Hi, [Name]. My review request was not even addressed. I can see very clearly the same flaw still remains within the published paper and is not addressed within the Discussion.
This is of major concern given that this diagnosis (dyspareunia) has a history riddled with psychosomatic implications and has been included as a diagnosis within the DSM. So, the fact that the investigators have excluded an entire psychiatric subpopulation is very concerning and that this flaw is not even addressed– when it easily could have been were my recommended edits given to the authors.
I am even MORE concerned that the handling editor did not think my request important enough.
I am genuinely angry that this has happened. This is entirely unacceptable. Minor revisions mean minor revisions, not accepted as is. If the minor revisions aren’t sent back to the reviewer, that’s fine. But I do expect to see reasonable requests addressed by the authors within the published manuscript. And I consider my suggested edit entirely reasonable and, in fact, highly important for this area of research. Women’s medicine is riddled enough with psychosomatic implications, modern research does not need to perpetuate old paternalistic biases– and I would hope that [journal’s name] would take a similar stance.
I would like to know what MDPI plans to do about this. I appreciate that MDPI attempts to publish articles rapidly, but if quality of the review process is impaired that is extremely concerning.
So, I waited some more. About a week later I receive a follow-up email from the same editor, a friendly response that basically said nothing in the end and instead asked me to expand on my original concerns about the publication for the original academic editor so that I could receive additional feedback:
Dear Dr. Casanova,
Hope the letter find all of you well!
Thank you for your email and my apologies for not reply earlier.
We hope you can send your further detailed comments to us, we will send it to the Academic Editor, and after receiving his comments, I will give you feedback.
In addition, We want to confirm whether you want to delete your name on the review report. Please tell me if you have any need.
And with that I am genuinely done. I sent off another frustrated response, but I am well and truly done. I had already written most of this blog, waiting to see how MDPI would address my complaints about their review process– as well as considering whether to publish the name of the company, depending on how they dealt with these issues. If they behaved responsibly, I would avoid their embarrassment and just publish the blog without outing them; if they behaved as they have done… well, you know how that’s gone. And apparently this is not the first complaint against MDPI, with a long litany covered on their Wikipedia page, in fact.
And so– even if I am one more outcry in a sea of other voices– I feel it’s my responsibility to let the community know what kind of practices MDPI finds acceptable. They are a publishing company that prides itself on rapid ($$$) publishing. But, clearly, the focus on rapid publishing means that the scientific review process is entirely optional.
Not for me, thanks.