Women, Science, and Publishing Revisited

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A microbiologist at work.
Image: East Bay AWIS.


A few months ago, a controversy occurred in the blogosphere regarding whether scientific papers whose first author is female are discriminated against during the peer-review process, and the suggestion was to institute double-blind peer review as a way to mitigate this possibility. “Double-blinding” as this is sometimes referred to, is a process where a manuscript that has been submitted to a journal for publication is sent out for peer-review with the authors’ names removed or encoded in some way that prevents the reviewers from learning their gender.

The scientific world suffers from a tremendous gender imbalance that appears to be self-perpetuating since female scientists are doing less well than men and young women are much more likely to leave science than are their male colleagues. So the sciences end up with many more men than women at all ranks after completion of graduate school, especially in positions of power, whether they are established professors sitting on multi-million-dollar research grants, editors of prestigious journals or reviewers of their peers’ research before that work is published in a scientific journal.
In the past, several papers uncovered blatant sexism in the workplace: male scientists benefit from inherent biases when it comes to awarding grants and short-term contracts, in job hunting, promotions, tenure decisions, salary and allotment of the departmental teaching load and lab space, while women are routinely penalized. Additionally, it is thought that there is bias against accepting papers for publication that have women as first authors. If this hypothesis is true, then the proportion of papers published by women should increase more quickly in those journals where the gender of the author is unknown during the peer-review process when compared to those journals where gender is known. One way to ensure this is for editors to institute a change in the peer-review policy such that reviewers cannot know the gender of a paper’s first author. This is a double-blind review, where neither the reviewers of a paper nor the authors of the paper being reviewed know each others’ identities.
Does double-blind review benefit female scientists? After extensive discussion on several blogs, my readers and those who read other blogs finally concluded that more data and further analyses of those data were needed to begin untangling the effect that any well-established scientist (who are nearly all male) is much more likely to be given a “pass” by journal editors or reviewers on any substandard papers that they write, while papers written by younger scientists (that include more women among their ranks), are judged much more harshly, or even rejected outright without peer review due to the first author’s gender (female).
Those additional data have just been published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, so I thought we should take a look at them.
The first question asked was whether female scientists responded to the enactment of a double-blind review policy by submitting more papers to those particular journals. The data analysis by Thomas Webb and his colleagues reveals that the increase in publication of female first author papers is comparable between journals using either single- or double-blind peer review (below);

This analysis was based on a comparison of the data that Webb and his colleagues collected for all complete volumes of Behavioral Ecology (red line) to the data collected for this same journal by Amber Budden and her colleagues (blue line) [DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2007.07.008] during a more limited time period. The vertical line denotes the dividing point between the initiation of double-blind review for the journal Behavioral Ecology in 2001, and the slope of the line reveals that double-blind review has almost no discernible effect on the proportion of published papers by female first-authors, especially when this journal is compared to five other ecology and evolution journals whose peer-review policy did not undergo any change (inset).
But perceptions can affect behavior. Amber Budden and her colleagues respond to Webb and his colleagues by pointing out that behavior (in this situation, the paper submission behavior of female scientists) is strongly influenced by editorial decisions that are made public, such as BE’s move to double-blind peer-review (below);

Their findings show that there was a 7.9% increase increase in papers published by female first authors for Behavioral Ecology (red line) after that journal’s change from single-blind to double-blind peer-review. They also found another journal, Biological Conservation, that exhibited a similar change in gender-based submission statistics, and speculate that this journal that may be using double-blind review, although its editors have not publically announced such a policy change.
So now that we have a little more data, it doesn’t clearly demonstrate that double-blind review has increased the proportion of published female first-author papers, although it is perceived to have this effect, and this perception then affects the number of female first author papers submitted to the journal. But what do you think?
BUDDEN, A., LORTIE, C., TREGENZA, T., AARSSEN, L., KORICHEVA, J., LEIMU, R. (2008). Response to Webb et al.: Double-blind review: accept with minor revisions. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(7), 353-354. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.04.001.
WEBB, T., OHARA, B., FRECKLETON, R. (2008). Does double-blind review benefit female authors? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(7), 351-353. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.03.003.
Gender Differences: Got More Data by Bob O’Hara, one of the authors of the Webb paper.


About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Women, Science, and Publishing Revisited

  1. anon says:

    The whole idea that someone is going to discrimnate against a first author female is nonsense. these results clearly demonstrate that. can everyone get on with their lives and stop being so paranoid?

  2. John says:

    So it seems the problem may lie outside the peer review process. Perhaps a higher teaching load or more responsibilities at home lead to less time for manuscript publication?

  3. John says:

    I meant “preparation” rather than “publication,” but it boils down to the same issue.

  4. G says:

    I’m not sure what the practice is in Ecology but in many fields the first author is often a graduate student/postdoc and the last author is the head of lab. When I review papers I am often unfamiliar with the first author and sometimes recognise the last author. Thus I find it hard to believe that there is much of a bias on the basis of the first author’s gender, but there is perhaps a bias towards established labs getting papers published.

  5. thanks for being such a mean old man, anon. instead of congratulating me on presenting this information on my blog (some blog writers would have ignored it) and being capable of rethinking a position i previously held and then changing my mind about it, as any good scientist should do (even Huxley changed his mind about evolution to become “Darwin’s bulldog”), you instead accuse me (and those who agreed with me) of being mentally ill and then admonish us all to “move on with our lives” — as if we would dwell on this point forever. do you suppose your nasty and hostile reaction has something to do with the general unwillingness of most people to take a stand regarding anything and then, when they finally do take a stand, they refuse to change their minds, EVER, regardless of how much new data they are confronted with?
    society is a give-and-take relationship, and everyone is wrong once in awhile, so we all should be more understanding regarding this, if for no other reason than one day, even YOU will be wrong. hopefully, when that happy day comes, someone will also accuse you of being mentally ill and of fixating your entire life on a speculative and poorly supported data point that nevertheless fits well with your own life experiences.

  6. DrugMonkey says:

    whut Grrl said, anon.
    If there is one single bloody positive contribution science bloggers can make to world discourse it is to disabuse people of this flip-flopper crap. Scientists find themselves to be wrong weekly if not daily in the lab! We are used to keeping multiple levels of certainty about our opinions and beliefs active, ready at all times to be modified by accumulating evidence.
    It just makes so much sense that it is difficult for me to understand why this is not default behavior…instead of “aha! flip-flopper!” or similar.
    a blogger who is willing to show where she has revised her thinking based on the accumulating evidence is to be congratulated.

  7. Greg Laden says:

    Wait … if the rate of increase of submission by females went up, but the slope of increase of female first author published stays the same, then we are NOT seeing the absence of a bias.
    Also, this is ecology. The anti-female bias is way way less in Ecology than in other fields of science, isn’t it? (Just guessing here).

  8. Pam Ronald says:

    Dear Grrl,
    it is curious that the simple question of whether women in science face some discrimination triggers strong reactions in some people.
    I am not referring only to anon. Take for instance, the article by Tierney in the NYT in science times last tuesday. It is called “A New Frontier for Title IX: Science”
    He is annoyed that “Under pressure from Congress, some federal agencies are investigating sexual discrimination at universities that receive federal grants.”
    Tierney takes the position that there is really no bias against women in science, that the small representation of women just reflects the fact that many women are less interested in science than men. He goes on to say that “The members of congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed” [note he references himself here]
    huh? Is he a scientist? Has he read the studies? no and no.
    Among other studies, he should read “Women in Science
    Career Processes and Outcomes” by my colleague the sociologist Kim Shauman
    In fact there is very clear evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences
    Of course not all mathematically gifted women want to be mathematicians, but for those women that have chosen science as a career, lets get rid of as many obstacles as possible.
    You can see some amusing responses to his article on
    e.g. “This article was so poorly written and unempirical that it has no place in the Science section of the NY Times.”

  9. i read that entry and its comments and it seems to me that Tierney is being deliberately provocative in a really juvenile attempt to get attention under the erroneous assumption that being “provocative” is something akin to being “boldly intellectual” or “freethinking”. of course, some of his readers like to buy into that mentality because they don’t want to seriously examine that (or any) issue(s) that would challenge the status quo when they can make it “go away” by branding those who are experiencing a problem as being the source of their own problems (remember the book, “Blaming the Victim”?). although i am no sociologist, my experience shows that this probably the most classical way that those with power have preserved their favored social paradigm. this is the same knee-jerk reaction that occurs/occurred in response to HIV-AIDS, to rape and incest, to racism, to poverty and to a whole suite of other social ills as well.

  10. Bob O'H says:

    Thanks for the write-up, Grrl. Sorry I couldn’t comment earlier, but I was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Student’s t-distribution (this may sound boring, but remember that “Student” worked for Guinness. :-)).
    Just one correction:

    Their findings show that there was a 7.9% increase increase in papers submitted by female first authors for Behavioral Ecology (red line) after that journal’s change from single-blind to double-blind peer-review.

    The data here is on published papers, not submitted papers, so we don’t have evidence for changes in submission.
    Incidentally, we checked with Biological Conservation and although they had an option for double-blinding, it had never been used.
    Greg’s point about there being less bias in ecology may well be true – it wouldn’t surprise me, but I don’t have any data. Actually, the only data I do have is from a paper by Blank, who showed that there was no bias in economics. Maths and physics would be interesting to see, though.

  11. More data regarding sexism against scientific papers whose first author is a woman — now what do you think?