“Publish or perish” is tattooed on the mind of every academ- ic. Like it or loathe it, publishing in high-profile journals is the fast track to positions in prestigious universities with illustrious colleagues and lavish resources, celebrated awards
and plentiful grant funding. Yet somehow, in the search to understand
why women’s scientific careers often fail to thrive, the role of high-impact
journals has received little scrutiny.
One reason is that these journals don’t even collect data about the
gender or ethnic background of their authors. To examine the representation of women within these journals, myself and Alicia Shen, a
psychology Ph.D. candidate, along with our colleagues Jason Webster
and Yuichi Shoda, delved into MEDLINE, the online repository that
contains records of almost every published peer-reviewed neuroscience
article. We used the Genderize.io database to predict the gender of first
and last authors on over 166,000 articles published between 2005 and
2017 in high-profile journals that include neuroscience, our own scientific discipline. The results were dispiriting.
Female scientists underrepresented
We began by looking at first authors—the place in the author
list that traditionally is held by the junior researcher who does the
hands-on research. We expected over 40 percent to be women, similar
to the percentage of women postdocs in neuroscience in the U.S. and
Europe. Instead, fewer than 25 percent first authors in the journals
Nature and Science were women.
Our findings were similar for last authors, the place typically held by
the laboratory leader. We expected the numbers to match large National
Institutes of Health grants—30 percent are awarded to women, comparable to the proportion of women tenure-track faculty in neuroscience.
But it was half what we expected—just over 15 percent of last authors
in Nature and Science were women.
Our study, published online and highlighted in a letter printed in
Nature, focused on neuroscience. We made our code accessible, and
we’re thrilled that students in other fields are already beginning to examine the gender breakdown of bylines in their own disciplines.
One thing our data mining study doesn’t reveal is why women are so
seriously underrepresented. But a large literature review suggests gender
bias almost certainly plays a role.
Bias in the publishing pipeline
One place bias occurs is when scientists themselves undervalue the
scientific contributions of women. One analysis found that women are
more likely to be the person performing experiments. Despite this, they
are more likely to be in the less prestigious middle author position.
Anecdotally, many laboratory leaders have observed that male students
tend to be more proactive about negotiating their position in the author
list than women.
Bias can also influence the reviewing process. Researchers at the Ohio
State University found that, when reviewers are randomly assigned to
evaluate scientific work ostensibly submitted by a female or a male author, they rated the work written by male authors as having higher rigor.
An analysis of peer-review scores for postdoctoral fellowship applications
in Sweden revealed a system that was “riddled with prejudice”—women
were given lower competence ratings than men who had less than half
their publication impact. Bias may be particularly strong when expec-
tations are high—qualities like “brilliance” are far more likely to be
attributed to men. This may be why we found the proportion of women
authors was negatively correlated with journal impact factor.
Finally, bias occurs within the editorial process. Nature, in a series
of editorials spanning more than a decade, has observed that its editors
are less likely to ask women to write commissioned pieces.
Do women fail to “lean in”? Female authors may be less likely
to submit to high-profile journals. Success rates for elite journals are
low—for instance, in Nature, less than 10 percent of submissions make
it into print. In many fields, the publication delay associated with a
failed submission means there’s a high risk of being scooped by another
research team. If a female scientist estimates her chance of success more
conservatively than a man, for whatever reason, she will be more likely
to play it safe.
Holding journals accountable
Scientific publishing is staggeringly profitable: in 2017, Elsevier reported profits of over $1.2 billion. These companies rely heavily on the
scientific community, both as authors of the journal content they are
selling and as reviewers. Given the profit they make and the outsized
influence they wield over scientific careers, it seems obvious that journals have a moral and perhaps even legal responsibility to make sure
the process is equitable.
We believe journals need to take full responsibility for ensuring
social equity across the publishing pipeline: encouraging women to submit, ensuring that women receive fair reviews, and enforcing equity in
the editorial process.
There are some obvious first steps. The scientific community should
demand that journals collect data about gender and ethnicity for article
submissions and acceptances, and these data should be publicly available. That way researchers can choose to avoid (or even boycott) journals with a poor track record. Researchers should insist that reviewers
be given more specific review criteria—such as requirements to explain
their ratings of significance and impact, as well as their assessment of
scientific quality. Finally, it is past time for journals to adopt mandatory
While the representation of women authors may not have changed
over the last decade or so, the attitude of the scientific community has
transformed. These days there is an overwhelming consensus in our scientific community that scientific talent is not gendered. Universities, funding
agencies, conference organizers and individual laboratory leaders around
the world are all working to resolve this problem. It is time for the journals to “lean in.”
Professor of Psychology
University of Washington
Editor’s Note: This article was republished via The Conversation. Read
the full, original version at theconversation.com. Author photo courtesy
of University of Washington. We invite you to submit your personal
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The Lack of Female Authors