Male scientists more likely to describe their work as 'unique' and 'excellent' than female counterparts

Male scientists are more likely than their female counterparts to use positive language to describe their research, a study has found.

A team from the University of Mannheim in Germany, Yale University and Harvard Medical School conducted an investigation to decipher the difference in the way in which women and men frame their scientific findings, and whether positive language results in an increased number of citations.

In their study, which was published in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), the researchers noted that women are “underrepresented in academic medicine and life sciences”. 

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In addition to earning “lower salaries”, receiving “fewer research grants” and receiving “fewer citations than their male colleagues”.

The researchers analysed the use of positive words in the titles and abstracts of 101,720 clinical research articles and around 6.2 million general life science articles published between 2002 and 2017.

They pinpointed words such as “novel”, “unique” and “unprecedented”, before comparing the sexes of the first and last authors of each piece of research.

The team noted that only 17 per cent of the clinical research articles featured a female first and last author.

Furthermore, the articles that did feature female first and last authors were 12.3 per cent less likely to include positive terms than if they were male.

The use of positive wording article titles and abstracts was associated with a 9.4 per cent increased likelihood of citations, and a 13 per cent higher likelihood among high impact clinical journals.

The most common positive word used in the analysed research was “novel”, a word that was used 59.2 per cent more often in articles written by male first and/or last authors.

“Unique” appeared in 13.3 per cent of the positively framed articles, and was used 43.8 per cent more often by male authors, while “promising” was featured in 12.5 per cent of the positively framed articles, and was used 72.3 per cent more frequently in articles written by male first and/or last authors.

While women-authored studies were 12 percent less likely to contain at least one of a group of 25 positive terms, including “favourable,” “excellent” and “prominent”. 

The researchers concluded that their research “provides large scale evidence that men in academic medicine and the life sciences more broadly may present their own research more favourably than women, and that these differences may help to call attention to their research through higher downstream citations”.

“These findings suggest that differences in the degree of self promotion may contribute to the well-documented gender gaps in academic medicine and in science more broadly.”

The team noted that the study has limitations, including the fact that they did not assess whether male and female scientists are held to different standards when they submit their articles.

Furthermore, the study is observational and so cannot establish a cause.

“We must fix the systems that support gender disparities,” wrote scientists from Harvard Medical School in an editorial published in The BMJ about the study.

“Journal editors must address gender equity within their own organisations and develop training and procedures focused on eradicating implicit bias, as undeniably manuscripts are altered by journal processes from submission to publication.”

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