It’s not news that gender inequality exists in STEM research, from women being underrepresented as faculty members, to disparities in grant funding, to exclusion on conference panels. According to a study published Monday (December 16) in The BMJ, women scientists are perhaps missing out on citations because of the language they use to describe their findings in publications.
The study, led by Marc Lerchenmueller from the University of Mannheim in Germany, scanned the titles and abstracts of more than 100,000 research papers between 2002 and 2017 for 25 different superlative words such as “unprecedented” and “unique.” They corrected for a number of factors, including field of research, the journal in which the article appeared, and when the paper was published.
Papers that include exciting language such as “novel,” “remarkable,” and “promising” were cited 13 percent more often than papers that didn’t, the study finds. Papers published in journals that had a high impact factor that had men as the first and/or last authors were up to 21 percent more likely to use that positive verbiage than papers with women as the first and last authors.
“A paper that is cited more often is going to be viewed by a promotions committee within a university as being more important than an article that is cited less often,” coauthor Anupam Jena of Harvard Medical School tells The Guardian.
The study was not able to interpret how these differences directly affected women’s careers. It was also not clear whether this language style was self-imposed or if it came about during the submission process at the behest of reviewers and editors.
“Women are often expected to show more feminine traits like empathy and being modest, or risk being seen as less likeable and not a team player,” Rosemary Morgan of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who was not involved with the study tells Reuters in an email. “This leads to women promoting themselves and their work less than men, which can negatively affect their career progression.”
Lisa Winter is the social media editor for The Scientist. Email her at email@example.com.