Women researchers are cited less than men. Here‘s why—and what can be done about it
Women’s scientific contributions are often undervalued and cited less often than those of their male counterparts, including in neuroscience, astronomy, medicine—and, according to two new studies, physics. This new body of work also points to a variety of factors that contribute to this citation bias, which could potentially help researchers and institutions address gender inequality in academia.
According to the first new study, published in Nature Physics last week, overcitation of men researchers is primarily driven by other men researchers (which has also been seen in political sciences) and by researchers less familiar with that area of work. “When you’re in a place of uncertainty, you want to choose something that has all the status symbols associated with quality, for right or wrong,” says Cassidy Sugimoto, a professor at the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology who was not involved with the study. So, when determining authors to cite, “You are going to overselect men and underselect women who may have similar quality but not necessarily be associated with those status symbols.” (The researchers excluded self-citations to focus on how researchers cite one another, but previous work has found men cite themselves more than women do.)
These kinds of effects can accumulate over the course of an academic’s career. Among members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), for example, men had on average about 14,000 more lifetime citations than women, according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month. And the shape and features of the citation networks also varied significantly by gender—women have fewer peers than men and usually have more women as peers, among other differences—to the extent that researchers could determine an individual’s gender based just on the network characteristics.
Understanding these underlying biases is critical for evaluating progress toward gender parity. For example, a recent working paper found that when comparing men and women who had similar publication and citation records in the fields of psychology, math, and economics, women were actually up to 15 times more likely to be accepted into NAS and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in the past 20 years. But researchers caution that interpreting such results is complex. “We should not take away from this paper that women have an unfair advantage because we know that productivity and citations are biased,” says Roberta Sinatra, a computational social scientist at the University of Copenhagen who was not involved in the study. As the authors write in their paper, women scholars face more obstacles in publishing and those who succeed “may in fact be better scholars than men with a similar record, potentially justifying a boost in their probabilities of selection as members of the academies.”
Some researchers also worry the overemphasis on studying elite groups in science may not represent the full picture. “You’re looking at something exceptional and drawing conclusions for a full population,” Sugimoto says.
But overall, these studies point to factors in which individual action could help do away with unfair systems, says Dani Bassett, a systems neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania who co-authored one of the recent physics studies as well as the study of neuroscience citations. One strategy, which Bassett’s team employs, is to quantify the proportion of men- and women-authored papers researchers cite in a study using tools like the Gender Balance Assessment Tool and include that information as a diversity statement. This, Bassett points out, not only informs of the citation parity in a study, but also signals a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. “These are areas where we can make a lot of change without having to convince specific leaders, which I think is really empowering for people in academia.”
At the same time, researchers also say the strategy should be collective, from individual researchers all the way to journals and academic institutions. “We cannot change the system without the community on board,” Karimi says.