A recent analysis of gender differences in research reporting has found that female scientists are less likely to use positive language to frame their findings than their male counterparts.
Clinical articles with male first or last authors were more likely to contain terms such as “unprecedented” and “unique” in their titles or abstracts than those with female first and last authors.
The new BMJ study also found that articles that contain such terms are more likely to have higher rates of subsequent citation.
A scientist’s rate of citation — that is, how often other articles reference their work — can impact their career prospects, note the study authors, who hail from the University of Mannheim in Germany, Yale University School of Management in New Haven, CT, and Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA.
“Citations are often used to gauge a researcher’s influence, and many organizations use cumulative citations explicitly in their decisions regarding recruitment, promotion, pay, and funding,” they write.
Gender disparity is a complex issue
In their study paper, the authors outline the gender disparities present in research communities such as the life sciences and academic medicine.
Not only are females in the minority, but they also earn less and win fewer research grants than males. In addition, their articles tend to gain fewer citations than those of their male colleagues.
“The factors that underlie gender disparities in academia are many and complex,” says senior study author Dr. Anupam Jena, “but it is important to be aware that language may also play a role — as both a driver of inequality and as a symptom of gender differences in socialization.”
Dr. Jena is an associate professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. He is also an assistant physician in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
He and his colleagues set out to analyze whether or not females and males differ in how positively they express their research findings.
They also wanted to find out whether or not a link exists between such positive framing and higher subsequent citation rates.
Methods and key findings
In total, the team analyzed more than 101,000 clinical research articles and around 6.2 million general life sciences articles that PubMed had published during 2002–2017.
They searched all the titles and abstracts of the articles for use of 25 positive terms, including “unprecedented,” “unique,” “excellent,” and “novel.”
Using a software tool called Genderize, they then determined the likely gender of the first and last author of each article using their first name.
In addition, with help from other established tools, they determined the journal impact and rate of citations of each article.
Their analysis revealed that:
- Articles with female first and last authors were 12.3% less likely, on average, to frame the findings in positive terms, compared with articles that had male first or last authors.
- This gender difference was even greater in high impact journals, where females were 21.4% less likely to use positive terms to describe their findings.
- On average, for clinical journals, the use of positive terms was linked to a 9.4% higher rate of subsequent citations.
- For high impact clinical journals, the use of positive terms was linked to a 13% higher rate of subsequent citations.
“Results were similar when broadened to general life science articles published in journals indexed by PubMed,” the study authors remark, “suggesting that gender differences in positive word use generalize to broader samples.”
The researchers say that the findings are in line with those of studies that suggest peer reviewers generally use a higher standard in judging the work of female scientists.
As the study was an observational one, it cannot establish the direction of cause and effect. For instance, it cannot say whether the use of positive language is a driver or consequence of inequality.
However, the results held up after the researchers adjusted them to take out potential influencers, such as field of research, journal impact factor, and year of publication. This suggests that the link is robust.
‘Fix the systems, not the women’
The researchers accept that their analysis had a number of limitations. For instance, they were not able to compare the relative scientific merits of the articles or determine the extent to which the editors may have influenced the choice of language.
They argue, however, that the findings show a clear trend in life sciences and academic medicine of regarding studies with male leaders as more important.
In a linked editorial, Dr. Reshma Jagsi, a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Dr. Julie K. Silver, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, comment on the research.
To respond with a “fix the women,” approach, they say, would show a lack of understanding of the evidence surrounding gender equity.
Instead of asking females to use more positive language in framing their research, they suggest that the focus should be on encouraging males to use a little restraint.
“We must fix the systems that support gender disparities,” they argue, urging all those who produce, edit, and consume scientific literature “to counteract bias in order to optimally advance science.”
“As a society, we want the best work to rise to the top on its own merits — how it helps us understand and improve health — not based on the gender of the researchers or on the researchers’ own opinion about whether their work is groundbreaking.”
Dr. Anupam Jena