Is that scientific research “excellent,” “novel,” “promising” or “unique”? Men are more likely than women to describe their research with those words, according to a new study.
And that could be holding women back in science — papers using positive adjectives such as those to describe the importance of their findings are cited more often by other scientists, implying more scientific influence and success, reports the study published this week in the journal BMJ.
The analysis, led by German social scientist Marc Lerchenmueller, looked for a set of 25 words considered “positive framing” in more than 100,000 clinical research articles and six million general life sciences articles published between 2002 and 2017.
Lerchenmueller is an assistant professor at the University of Mannheim who is interested in the gender gap in science and innovation. He was inspired to look into how words are used differently based on gender by a chat with his wife, Carolin Lerchenmueller, a physician-scientist who questioned the way research summaries of studies in her field were written.
“She felt they were a little overstated overhyped, you know, compared to what the actual research presented,” Marc Lerchenmueller recalled.
That led him to wonder whether there might be a difference in the way men and women use language in scientific research papers, and what impact that might have.
A 2015 study by Dutch researchers had already found the use of a set of 25 positive words, including “robust,” “novel” and “innovative,” had increased dramatically between 1974 and 2014.
Lerchenmueller and his collaborators at Yale University and Harvard Medical School looked for the same set of words in their study, and tried to see whether their frequency depended on whether the first and last authors of the paper were male or female, which they deduced from the authors’ names. The first author is traditionally the scientist who did most of the work, while the last author is traditionally the senior researcher who runs the lab and whose grants fund the study.
Gender gap bigger in influential journals
The analysis found articles in which the first or last author was a man used at least one of the “positive words” in the title or summary 12.2 per cent of the time, while articles where both the first and last author were women used at least one of those words 10.9 per cent of the time. The difference was even bigger in more influential or “high impact” clinical journals.
The difference remained even when the researchers tried to account for differences in novelty among different fields or compared research in similar fields published in the same journal in the same year, suggesting this wasn’t because men were doing more cutting-edge research than women.
Why it’s bad news for women
But does the difference in the language use actually make any difference?
The researchers found that articles that made use of the glowing terms were cited 9.4 per cent more by other scientists, and in high-impact journals, the use of those words was linked to 13 per cent more citations.
The researchers note that citations are often used to gauge a researcher’s influence and many organizations use the number of citations a researcher has in decisions on recruitment, promotion, pay and funding.
“These findings suggest that differences in the degree of self-promotion may contribute to the well-documented gender gaps in academic medicine and in science more broadly,” they added in the study.
Canadian researcher Holly Witteman, an associate professor in medicine at the University of Laval who was not involved in the study, but has researched gender bias in science, said this might “explain one more small piece of all the different things that look like they add up to explain the differences that we see among men and women career trajectories in academic research.”
Solution isn’t more ‘spin’
But is the solution for women to promote themselves more like men? Neither Lerchenmueller nor Witteman think so.
After all, the starting point of the BMJ-published study was the suggestion that sometimes the descriptions of studies may be overhyped and overstated.
“Although our findings suggest that men and women differ in how they ‘spin’ research results, our approach cannot determine the optimal degree of positive framing for the dissemination of research (that is, ‘spin’ may have disadvantages for the advancement of science),” the study says.
Lerchenmueller said because it’s important for science that the best research “rises to the top” and gets attention, journals need “to really look at the language that’s used and make sure that the language is commensurate with what’s presented.”
Witteman said if that’s not the case, “then what we take from this is that well maybe the male authors should be a little bit more modest about their findings.”
Nor will women necessarily be successful if they try to use more positive words to describe their research, said Jocalyn Clark, executive editor at the medical journal the Lancet who led a special issue on women in science and medicine earlier this year.
“Women are both socialized from a young age in our culture to be less aggressive or less bold than men,” said Clark, who was not involved in the study. “But we’re also taught that if we breach those gender norms that we’re met with negative sanctions. So even if a woman wanted to describe her work as ‘groundbreaking,’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘novel,’ they may be discouraged or silenced from doing so.”
Journals, peer reviewers have a role to play
An editorial accompanying the new study suggests one reason gender differences in the use of positive words may be bigger in high-impact journals is they tend to have more copy editing done, “often using aggressive strategies that fundamentally alter the language used in reporting findings” — that is, the difference may not originate entirely from the authors themselves.
Clark said she suspects the difference generally does arise with the authors. She said copy editors and production editors used standardized methods to edit for meaning and flow.
But Clark, also an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, thinks journals, editors and peer reviewers — who all express their opinion on the quality of research before publication — all have a role to play.
“I think for me this piece of research speaks to the importance of it being more of a structural problem than one that’s going to go away by asking women to talk about their work differently.”
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