On average, female researchers earn less, receive less funding, and are cited less than their male colleagues. In a new paper published on 16 December in the British Medical Journal, the authors investigate another potentially important gender difference in research: how scientists present the importance of their research.
Professor Marc Lerchenmueller, an economist at the University of Manheim in Germany, wondered whether there were systematic differences in how scientists frame their research findings based on gender. As it turns out, he was on to something. Interestingly, when women were both the first and last author, articles were less likely to include positive terms like “novel”, “unique”, or “unprecedented”.
Lerchenmueller and his colleagues analyzed more than 100,000 medical studies and over six million life sciences articles published across a 15-year period. They discovered that articles written by men included the word “novel” 60 per cent more often, “unique” 44 per cent more often, and “unprecedented” 72 per cent more frequently. In addition, men were much more likely to use the words “novel,” “unique” and “excellent” in summaries of their scientific papers.
This may not seem so important. However, these subtle differences in how women describe their work might affect their future career trajectory. Indeed, differences in research reporting are yet another dimension that could help explain why are women are persistently underrepresented in the most senior, visible, and celebrated ranks of their profession.
Presenting research findings in a positive light was associated with higher citation rates and citations are a key indicator of impact and therefore, the influence of a person’s research. But why is it more acceptable for men to make bold claims than it is for women?
The authors suggest possible reasons for gender differences framing research findings may not be down to how women write. During the peer review and publication process, manuscripts are modified by reviewers and editors who often opine more frequently on women’s writing and hold women to higher academic standards, including better writing.
In an earlier paper, Hengel suggests that higher writing quality of female-authored papers indicates tougher editorial standards and/or biased referee assessments faced by women (2). She found that female authors spend three to six months longer under review.
In fact, Lerchenmueller discovered the greatest gender disparities in framing were for the highest impact journals, which tend to do more copyediting and are often more likely to alter the language used in reports.
Another reason for gender disparities in research reporting might be owing to longstanding gender norms. Women are often still raised to act with more modesty. Unfortunately, the study was observational and cannot pinpoint why these differences arise.
So, the question remains: Are word choices innate or influenced by the editorial process or the overarching academic culture?
An obvious solution might be that women should act more like men and be more positive. However, in an accompanying editorial, Jagsi and Silver warn that a “fix the women” approach (3). Instead, we should fix the broken systems that support various types of bias against women.
(2) Lerchenmueller, M.J., Sorenson, O., and Jena, A.B. Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study. British Medical Journal (2019). DOI: 10.1136/bmj.l6573
(2) Hengel, E. Publishing while Female. Are women held to higher standards? Evidence from peer review. Cambridge Working Papers in Economics (2017).
(3) Jagsi, R. and Silver, J.K. Gender differences in research reporting. British Medical Journal (2019). DOI: 10.1136/bmj.l6692