Male scientists seem to frame their research results in a more positive way than female scientists, regardless of the importance or novelty of these results. These are the conclusions of an analysis conducted by an international team of researchers from the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, the University of Mannheim (Germany) and Yale University's Management School, published in the journal BMJ.
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Women are still underrepresented in academic medicine and the humanities in general. In addition, they earn lower salaries, receive fewer research grants, and their scientific articles are cited fewer times than those of their male colleagues.
A team of researchers has decided to investigate whether these gender gaps can somehow be caused by the extent to which women promote their research findings compared to men. They tried to test whether men and women differ in the positive way they frame their research results and whether the positive frame is associated with more citations.
They analyzed the use of words such as "novelty", "unique" or "unprecedented" in titles and abstracts of over 100,000 clinical research articles and over six million humanities articles published between 2002 and 2017. These positive terms were then compared with the gender of the first and last author of each article. They also assessed whether gender differences in positive presentation varied according to the impact of the journal.
Overall, 17% of clinical research articles involved a woman as the first and last author, while 83% of articles involved a man as first or last author.
The results show that articles in which the first and last author were both women were on average 12.3% less likely to use positive terms to describe research results than articles in which the first and/or last author was male. The positive presentation was on average associated with subsequent citations 9.4% and 13% higher in clinical journals with high impact factors.
This is an observational study, so it cannot establish causal links. The researchers point out some limitations that may have influenced the results. However, the results were similar after taking into account several confounding factors, suggesting robust validity.
Therefore, according to the authors, the study provides large-scale evidence that men in academic medicine and other fields of research present their results more positively than women, and that these differences can help draw attention to their research through citations. Rather than encouraging women to frame their research findings in a more positive way, the authors suggest that action should be taken to moderate the enthusiastic tones of men. And they invite journal editors, producers and consumers of scientific literature to work together "to counter prejudices in order to advance science in an optimal way."
Lerchenmueller MJ, Sorenson O, Jena AB. Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: an observational study. BMJ. 2019 Dec 16;367:l6573. doi: 10.1136/bmj.l6573.