Gender bias in science? Research authored by women cited far less than male-led projects

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — While the STEM gender gap is slowly closing, a new study illustrates just how far modern science has to go in terms of seeing male and female scientists as equals. One would think that people are judging any research project by its findings and methodology, not its authors. Unfortunately, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania report scientific articles with women authors get far less attention than similar studies put together by male scientists. According to the findings, this is especially the case when women are either the primary and senior authors.

Researchers analyzed a total of 5,554 articles published in five of the most prominent academic medical journals between 2015 and 2018 for this project. Within that group, 35.6 percent of the studies had a female primary author and 25.8 percent had a female senior author.

On average, other researchers cited studies with a woman listed as the primary author 36 times. Meanwhile, other studies referenced reports primarily authored by men an average of 54 times. Similarly, the scientific community cited articles with female senior authors 37 times on average, in comparison to an average of 51 references for male senior authors. Studies including a female senior and primary author received the fewest citations on average (33) in other works. Articles primarily authored by men however, received the most, averaging 59 references.

“The number of times a peer-reviewed articles cited by other researchers is commonly used as a metric for academic recognition, influence, as well as in professional evaluations and promotions,” says lead author Paula Chatterjee, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of General Internal Medicine at Penn Medicine, in a university release. “Female academics already face a number of barriers to career advancement, and the disparity in citations only broadens the gap between them and their male peers.”

Is the gap in science even larger than it appears?

The research team also notes a number of included studies appear in journals focusing on the field of internal medicine. This is worth mentioning because internal medicine generally boasts a higher number of women specialists than other clinical specialties. This may suggest that these findings, if anything, may actually be underselling just how drastic the gap is between male and female citations.

“Gender disparities in citations are just one way in which inequities in academic medicine should be examined. Our findings highlight that disparities stem in part from inequities in recognition and amplification of research. This imbalance will not be solved through hiring and mentoring more women alone,” concludes senior author, Rachel Werner, MD, PhD, Executive Director of the Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics. “We must also work to ensure that women already in academic medicine are equally valued and promoted for their contributions and their successes. From the journals publishing this work, to academic institutions promoting articles once published, everyone should be invested in bridging this gender divide.”

The team published their findings in the journal JAMA Network Open.

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