Female researchers are cited just as much as their male colleagues

Several studies have concluded that male researchers are cited more than their female counterparts. However, researchers from the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy have dug deeper and conclude that there is no meaningful difference between the genders. According to the researchers behind the study, this conclusion should be noted by the management of research institutions.

Paper on which 50/50 is written by hand
Photo: Colourbox

Female researchers are just as competent as male researchers. At least measured in terms of citations. That is the essence of a new research result, which has just been published in the journal eLife and which challenges previous research in the area.

In recent years, several articles have concluded that female researchers are cited less than their male colleagues. This has led to controversial statements about female researchers being less competent. However, according to the new study there is no meaningful difference between how often male and female researchers are cited.

“Our study differs from other studies as it digs deeper and takes a more thorough approach. Previous studies have either been conducted on small data sets or fail to consider that other factors apart from gender will have an effect on the impact of a research article,” says Jens Peter Andersen, senior researcher at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy (CFA) at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University.

Together with Jesper Wiborg Schneider and Mathias Wullum Nielsen from CFA and Reshma Jagsi from the University of Michigan, he has zoomed in on the field of medicine and reviewed all international medical research from 2008 to 2014. The analysis took into account differences in the researchers’ specialty and the prestigiousness of their affiliation.

“When we take these aspects into account, female researchers perform just as well as their male counterparts,” says Andersen.

One uncertainty of the study, which is also a recurring feature of previous research, is that it focuses on the number of citations of the individual paper rather than of its authors. In other words, the study does not consider the researchers’ additional research.

“We know that it can make a difference for female researchers that they tend to take longer parental leaves and that they are thus more affected by breaks in their career than their male colleagues. For that reason, we will try to uncover this dimension in future,” says Andersen.

Citations are used incorrectly in gender equality debate
According to the researchers, the result of the new study reflects that female researchers have just as much impact as their male colleagues. This new knowledge is crucial for the ongoing gender equality debate.

“Even today, more men than women obtain permanent positions as associate professors, and the difference is even greater in terms of full professorships. We also know that men are more successful in obtaining research grants. Often, the researchers’ qualifications have been used as an explanation for this, however multiple studies now suggest that this is not the whole truth. Our study shows that research conducted by women has just as much impact as research conducted by men. However, there may be differences between the fields men and women study, and therefore audience sizes may vary. People who are responsible for hiring researchers or distributing funds to new research projects should make a mental note of this. It is untenable to use citations to justify why women aren’t promoted and aren’t awarded grants to the same extent as men,” says Andersen.

In many parts of the world, it is a rather new phenomenon that women are educated to the same or nearly the same extent as men. Therefore, men still constitute the majority of the old and more experienced researchers.

“This means that men have a seniority that naturally allows them to be more visible. Our data does not allow us say anything directly about the correlation between the researchers’ gender and age. However, it seems obvious that when younger women perform as well as, on average older, men, they have the potential to do even better in the long term,” says Andersen.

He believes that the persistent lack of gender equality and equity in academia is explained by structural and cultural problems and bias, rather than a falsely assumed difference in the merit of either gender.

“The question is whether we are dealing with specific structures that carry on a culture in which it is extremely difficult for female researchers to achieve the same recognition as their male counterparts.”


Read the entire research article from eLife here: Gender variations in citation distributions in medicine are very small and due to self-citation and journal prestige


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