It is claimed that the field of scientific publishing is riven with gender bias. Most scientific papers rely on citations to support their arguments and a scientific publication’s reference section can list over a hundred studies. This can be a problem in several ways. For example, sometimes people cite a publication as supporting a given argument, but when you read the study (which most people do not) it doesn’t uphold the claim. This is called citation distortion and it is a big problem.
Another problem is selective citation or ‘cherry picking.’ That is, only citing those studies that support and argument while ignoring those that do not. For this reason, the systematic review has gained prominence. In this type of review all references that meet the search criteria have to be included but they are sifted according to methodological rigor rather than conclusions that match those of the author. For example, a review of Ivermectin for COVID* would initially include all published treatment studies. However, those studies that lacked a proper pre-trial protocol and adequate description of randomisation, allocation concealment, blinding of subjects and researchers would not contribute to the estimation of effect-size*. Nonetheless all studies are considered and cited.
A claim made by feminists is that papers written by female researchers are less likely to be cited and that this is a source of bias in the literature and something that holds back the careers of female researchers. Women have even described feeling invisible in male dominated environments. It is true that overall there are fewer citations of female researchers in the literature. However, as always, it is a mistake to to only consider one variable, gender, when looking at citation bias. There are many possible factors that could impact on what papers are cited in the scientific literature. A recent study published in Communications Physics identified a variable that may account for this difference, in physics at least. The paper Influence of the first-mover advantage on the gender disparities in physics citations, was published on 13th October 2022. Fortunately, the paper is not hidden behind a paywall so you can read it for yourself.
The study suggests that the initial papers in a subject area were more likely to have been written by men and for that reason they are more likely to have been cited by subsequent workers in that field. For example, if you were writing a paper about general relativity (about which I know nothing) you would cite Albert Einstein as the originator of the idea it would be poor research-etiquette to do otherwise. According to the study in Communications physics more of those first mover papers have been written by men. I doubt if this disparity arises from men being better scientists, though we can’t discount this possibility. It more likely that in the past there have been fewer female researchers and consequently not so many first-mover papers.
The study in Communications Physics compared pairs of similar publications, one with a female lead researcher and the other with male lead researcher. The frequency with which these papers were cited was almost the same. In 45% of cases, the men got more citations, in 39% of cases the women got more citations and in 16% of pairs there was no difference. This difference almost disappeared when first mover advantage was controlled for. Perhaps the most encouraging finding was clear trend, in physics at least, to female authors being cited more, presumably because there are now more of them in senior positions.
Does this supposed citation disparity harm women’s careers as they have claimed? There is good evidence that the answer is no. A prepublication of a study due to be published by the National Bureau of Economic Research sheds light on this matter – Gender Gaps at the Academies. Although the link takes you to an abstract if you search around you can find a pre-print of the full paper. Election to the leading scientific Academies such as the National Academy of Science (NAS) of the American Academy of Arts and Science (AAAS) is an important measure of scientific esteem. In the 1990s the selection process for these prestigious positions was found to be roughly gender neutral based on publications and citations. However in the last 20 years a strong positive preference for female researchers has emerged and women are 3-5 times more likely to be elected to these position than their male peers with an equivalent publication and citation records. This is evidence for a strong anti-male bias in these organisations.
This takes us back to the case of Allessandro Strumia who was a physicist at CERN in Geneva. His crime was to present data at a gender diversity workshop that appeared to show women were being appointed with fewer scientific publications and citations. For that he lost his job at CERN. For a more detailed account of this episode I recommend William Collins blog post Alessandro’s CERN Talk. Not only was he right about CERN, but the problem may be pervasive than he realised.
This pattern of female preferment is not only true of the most prestigious positions. A paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, Women have substantial advantage in STEM faculty hiring, except when competing against more-accomplished males showed a similar effect in hiring for tenure track positions in the USA. The study gave no support to the claim made by feminists that less qualified men are are given preference in hiring decisions.
This all fits with my experience. Some female academics claim they had to be twice as good as their male colleagues to be appointed. When asked to specify which of their colleagues they were twice as good as, they were oddly silent.
- *If you do this exercise for Ivermectin you find no meaningful treatment effect.