How researchers get heard

Science Now Drives Polarization

The journal Nature Communications is in hot water for publishing a paper claiming to show that having a female mentor (or being one) puts scientists at a career disadvantage.

As Science magazine summarized the findings, “the more female mentors an early-career scientist had, the lower the impact of the papers they published when they became senior scientists” — impact being measured by citation rates. The effect was “particularly strong for female mentees” as well as for female mentors of women, who “suffer on average a loss of 18% in citations on their mentored papers.”

The paper concluded:

Our gender-related findings suggest that current diversity policies promoting female-female mentorships, as well-intended as they may be, could hinder the careers of women who remain in academia in unexpected ways. …Female scientists, in fact, may benefit from opposite-gender mentorships in terms of their publication potential and impact throughout their post-mentorship careers.

The reaction was instant and molten. Among the criticisms:

  • The findings are evidence of institutionalized sexism, not ineffectiveness of mentorship.
  • Mentorship is not limited to co-authorship.
  • Citations are not the only measure of impact, and also favor men (who, among other things, self-cite at higher rates than do women).
  • The study ran first names of researchers from the Microsoft Academic Graph through to determine researcher gender, which potentially introduced large inaccuracies in the database (and excludes researchers who are non-binary gender). According to supplemental material for the paper, the authors could not identify gender for 48% of the first names tested on
  • The paper ignores other research (here’s a good example) on the importance of role modeling for women in the sciences.
  • Many of these criticisms were noted by the peer reviewers of the paper.

A piece on SkepChick written by the pseudonymous Isis the Scientist perhaps said it best: “Other studies of women mentors have truly quantified mentorship. This is not what their study shows. The study shows that publishing with a man is beneficial and that the least citations arise when two women publish together as end authors. No f-cking shit.”

Facing angry calls for retraction, Nature Communications has announced the article is under review. Inside Higher Ed has the most thorough reporting of the controversy — including the backlash to the backlash, which frames the criticism of the paper as an assault on free inquiry.

What’s missing from this discussion? That controversy is no longer a sign that the scientific publishing system has failed. Instead, controversy and polarization are now the point of the system

  • This paper — as with far too many in the science-media industrial complex — was framed, published and promoted to get headlines, not to advance knowledge. The journal’s overriding of its own peer reviewers’ objections makes this motivation plain.
  • The incentives of the science-media industrial complex promote such publicity-first studies and publication.
  • Results from the complex are instantly received along polarized lines, both against and for the paper, which normalizes the polarized reception of science.
  • No matter whether the individual paper gets retracted or not, the publicity incentivizes the repetition and intensification of this dynamic ad infinitum, until science becomes synonymous with polarization.

The solution is hard, because journals aren’t going to stop doing this — not unless every scientist signs up to boycott them, as a handful of scientists have pledged to boycott Nature Communications after this fiasco.

Scholars must establish public knowledge resources on crucial topics such as the importance of female mentorship in science. These resources would clearly summarize not just the state of evidence on the critical questions, but how we know what we know — i.e., what we mean and measure when we say and measure “female mentorship.” They would point to the evidentiary gaps that research has yet to fill. They could galvanize funders to support research that would fill these gaps.

Or we could just keep fighting this battle tweet by tweet, retraction call by retraction call.

Dennis Skley/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.