Female scientists are less likely than men to be authors on papers despite having contributed towards the work. That is according to a new study published today in Nature by researchers in the US, who say that the findings may help to account for differences in the observed output of male and female scientists.
It is well documented that fewer female scientists are named on scientific papers than men and have fewer patents than their male counterparts. But it is not well understood if this is due to a disparity in actual contributions or more about how much recognition different scientists receive for their work. This is a difficult question to answer, however, given how hard it is to study the absence of names in author lists – in essence, data that is not there.
To combat this issue, the authors, led by economist Julia Lane from New York University, looked at the administrative records from the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science at the University of Michigan. This included 128,859 individuals who worked on 9778 research teams from 2013 to 2016.
They examined 39,426 journal articles and 7675 patents produced by these teams, finding that despite making up about 48% of the workforce, women comprise only 35% of the team members who are named as authors. Furthermore, by considering data on the job titles of individuals, the researchers found that women are less likely to receive authorship credit at every stage of their career.
Since our findings suggest that there is a remarkably strong gap at all levels and in all fields, it may result in young women leaving science
The study also analysed data from surveys of scientists and found that female scientists are more likely to report being excluded from authorship on a paper that they had directly worked on. Out of 2660 survey responses, 43% of women reported experiencing this, compared with 38% of men.
The patterns occurred consistently across all scientific disciplines. The paper compares “potential authorships”, or the set of individuals working on a team one year prior to the publication of an article by that team, with “actual authorships” – the set of individuals who were listed as authors on those articles. In the physical sciences, for example, the share of actual female authorships was found to be some 14 percentage points lower than their share of potential authorships.
These disparities could help to explain why there are fewer women in senior scientific positions. “There is evidence in other fields that if workers are not given a voice they tend to exit,” Lane told Physics World. “Since our findings suggest that there is a remarkably strong gap at all levels and in all fields, it may result in young women leaving science.”
Women miss out on high-profile awards and positions
The researchers believe that there are several factors that could lead to the observed disparities in attribution. This includes differences in propensity towards self-promotion as well as lab principal investigators lacking explicit and consistent rules for determining who qualifies for co-authorship.
The authors therefore suggest that funding agencies and universities could consider developing explicit standards for co-authorship and encourage team members to speak up if they think contributions are being overlooked.
Study co-author Britta Glennon from the University of Pennsylvania also says that principal investigators could receive training as lab managers. “[They] are not trained to pay attention to this kind of aspect of managing a lab – and attribution is part of lab management,” she adds.