Disparities in research papers
Women tend to receive less credit for authoring articles and patents than men, study reveals
Less than 6% of Nobel prizes awarded in Science categories were awarded to women, according to information available on the Nobel Prize website. The gender inequality is also clear when analyzing scientific output data. In this case, it is noted that women tend to receive less credit for authoring articles and patents than men in research groups. This is revealed in a study led by Matthew Ross, an economist and researcher at Northeastern University, in the United States, whose findings were published in Nature, in June.
Ross and his team analyzed data from 2013 to 2016, referencing nearly 10,000 research groups linked to over 50 North American educational institutions. In total, information from 128,859 researchers responsible for producing approximately 39,000 papers and 7,000 patents was considered. One of the findings resulting from this analysis is that the likelihood of women scientists being credited for scientific articles and patents was, respectively, 13.2% and 58.4% lower than that of men in the same research group.
Additionally, nearly 2,400 researchers participated in a survey. It was found that 43% of the women surveyed had already been excluded from authorship of a paper in which they participated. This rate was 38% for men. Another aspect identified in the study was that women are much less likely to be listed as authors of high-impact articles. According to the study’s authors, this dynamic is expressed in practically all fields of knowledge and at all career stages.
The study’s conclusions are supported by emblematic cases of women’s lack of visibility and credit in science. A concrete example is Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (1878–1968), who played an important role in discovering nuclear fission during the first half of the twentieth century. For decades, Meitner worked alongside German chemist Otto Hahn (1879–1968) at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, in Berlin.
With the rise of Nazism, Meitner—who was Jewish—moved to Sweden in 1938 but remained in contact with Hahn by means of letters. The following year, the German scientist published evidence of nuclear fission without crediting his colleague with the discovery. In 1944, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Hahn, who ignored Meitner’s contributions.
The study conducted by Ross suggests that the gender gap in science is linked, among other factors, to the lack of recognition for women in work that results in innovative discoveries. Other research indicates this very scenario as well. An article published in September 2021 in the journal Science Advances also shows that women are more likely to experience disagreements regarding the authorship of scientific works.
In this study, led by Cassidy R. Sugimoto, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, in the United States, it is argued that scientific authorship is “rife with injustice” and cases of malpractice. To reach this conclusion, Sugimoto and her team surveyed more than 5,500 researchers from across the globe, in areas such as natural sciences, medical sciences, social sciences, and engineering. In all, 36% of the respondents self-identified as women.
The results demonstrate that more than half (53.2%) of the respondents reported that they had encountered authorship disagreements related to works in which they participated, either in author naming or the order in which they appear in the author list for an article. It is worth remembering that, in general, the first author is responsible for making the main contributions to the research, while the last author is the project leader.
According to the study, “women are more likely than men to have disagreements in how authors were ordered in scientific articles.” Gender differences in disagreements were more extreme in the natural sciences and engineering, where women represent the lowest proportion of researchers. In this case, the odds of women reporting naming disagreements is 50% higher than that of men.
Another study, published in PLOS ONE in April, investigated the problem of women being underrepresented as authors of scientific articles exclusively in medical journals. Performed by researchers at the State University of New York, the study analyzed 1,080 articles published between 2002 and 2019 in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), The Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
Women appear in first author position in only 27% of the papers analyzed, despite constituting 37% of medical school faculty in the United States. They appear in last author position in only 19% of the articles analyzed. The proportion of women listed as first authors was greatest in JAMA (nearly 35%). In the opinion of the study’s authors, gender differences in authorship of academic works may serve to perpetuate other discrepancies between men and women in medical sciences.
It should be noted that, in addition to the number of papers published in top medical journals, the position attributed to the author in an article (for example, last position for the research leader) is another aspect considered when applying for funding, promotions, and leadership positions. As such, discussions on gender-related power dynamics are necessary within the context of a researcher’s career, to encourage a more equitable distribution of credit for scientific articles.
Stereotypes and double shift
Maria Cristina Soares Guimarães, a chemical engineer and researcher at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s Institute of Scientific and Technological Communication and Information in Health (ICICT-FIOCRUZ), accounts that her name has been excluded from studies in which she participated. According to her, the practice is more common than one might imagine [RL1].
“I’ve experienced situations that took me years to understand,” says Guimarães. “In general, women are still seen as fragile, naive, and unprepared to deal with the research laboratory environment. Even when I did a good job, I often had to spend extra energy proving the quality of what I did. And even then, my name was erased from some works.”
The Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) indicates that, although women are the majority among doctors in various subject areas, representing nearly 54% of the country’s doctoral students, they are not as well represented at the highest levels of scientific careers, which may influence first position authorship and representation in research groups.
Both in Brazil and abroad, women’s participation in scientific research varies according to the field of knowledge. While women represent over 60% of all researchers (overall) in life sciences and health, they represent less than 25% in mathematics and computer science.
In addition to the gender stereotypes and biases they are faced with on a daily basis in academia, many women researchers take on a double shift of work and housework—an obstacle that affects women across social groups. “There are reports of women scientists who need to bring their children to the laboratory, because they are solely responsible for childrearing,” explains Hellowa Corrêa, a scientific dissemination expert and a master’s student in the history of science at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
“We also know that some women agree to work for free or accept grants that are lower than those received by men,” says Corrêa, who is part of the Women in Science movement. The initiative began on social media, with the objective of bringing together women scientists from Brazil to discuss gender issues in research, to vent, and to seek concrete solutions to these problems. Now, the Facebook community has more than 2,200 researchers from various fields.
In search of data
Biologist Fernanda Staniscuaski is well aware of the obstacles hindering women and affecting academic productivity. With the arrival of her children, the researcher at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) noticed a decrease in the funds invested in her research projects. “It was because of this experience that I began studying the impacts of motherhood in Brazilian academia,” explains Staniscuaski, who is part of the Parent in Science project, created in 2017.
The initiative brings together researchers from around the world with the mission of investigating the challenges inherent to motherhood in a scientific career and generating data that provides a thorough understanding of how having children burdens women scientists.
Based on surveys, the group has shown that one of the main issues faced by women scientists who become mothers is obtaining funding for their research. This obstacle is directly related to the productivity logic that guides most researchers’ performance evaluations and stages of career advancement.
Parent in Science’s efforts have had an effect in Brazil. In 2021, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) allowed researchers to indicate their maternity leave periods on the Lattes platform, which holds over 4 million academic curricula. With this development, it is expected that research support agencies will consider this information when analyzing the productivity of scientists who have children.
Since 2017, grant recipients with the CNPq and the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) have been entitled to withdraw from academic activities due to maternity or adoption, without losing their grant—a measure that was adopted in 2013 by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).
Despite these advances, Staniscuaski draws attention to the fact that more initiatives like these are still needed to achieve gender equality in science. “We need more studies and data capable of revealing the profile of Brazilian researchers, in order to develop public policies to promote gender equity.”
A Parent in Science survey, performed during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, showed that parenthood and remote work were proving to be an impasse for mother and father researchers. However, women’s productivity was more affected than that of men: 52% of the women scientists with children were unable to finish their scientific articles—in the case of men, the rate was 38%. In general, the scientists who were most capable of working from home were those who did not have the double shift of motherhood or fatherhood.