Science is conducted by teams. But within those teams, credit isn’t always assigned equitably: Women are less likely to be authors than men in their research group at the same career stage, even accounting for the hours each worked on the project, according to a study published today in Nature. “The consequences of such disparities on the retention of senior women in, and the attraction of young women to, scientific careers are unlikely to be positive,” the researchers write.
Studies across many science, technology, engineering, and math fields have documented that women author fewer papers than expected based on the percentage of women in the field. But it has been challenging to figure out why that’s the case—in part because it’s hard to identify who was potentially left off author lists. The new study overcame this hurdle by drawing on a uniquely detailed data set of nearly 10,000 US-based scientific research teams, the 128,859 individuals who were employed by those teams from 2013 to 2016, and the 39,426 journal articles they produced. With these data, the authors were able to link who did the work with who ultimately got credit for it. (The study inferred gender based on names, a method that involves some error and doesn’t permit the identification of nonbinary researchers.)
“It’s almost like this paper managed to probe into the ‘dark matter’ behind gender inequality,” says Dashun Wang, a professor at Northwestern University who studies science team. “It pinpoints a crucial yet often overlooked factor in driving inequality—attribution.”
“This paper is fantastic because it addresses something we’ve been wondering about–what is happening behind the scenes, what is the reason behind this authorship gender gap?” adds Tamara Pico, an assistant professor in earth sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who authored a 2020 study investigating the gender gap in authorship in her field. “People will say, well maybe women submit less papers or are less involved, and of course there are gendered reasons for why that might be the case, but this study shows that … at least in some substantial way, undercrediting contributions is why women are less represented as authors.”
It’s common to hear stories about women being left off author lists, notes study author Britta Glennon, an assistant professor of business at the University of Pennsylvania. “I know quite a lot of women who have had this experience,” but “I didn’t know the scale of it,” she adds. “Everyone knows the occasional story, but I think people might assume those are outliers. And what we’re saying is they’re not… it’s actually much more systemic.”
Glennon acknowledges that the study couldn’t control for every factor that goes into determining who deserves authorship. It’s possible, for instance, that some of the men working on the research teams worked more hours than were officially reported to their institution or had more intellectual contributions to the group’s work.
However, she notes that women report receiving less credit than they feel they deserve. In a survey of 2446 scientists conducted as part of the new study, women were more likely than men to report that they were excluded from authorship and that their colleagues had underestimated their contributions to a paper. And a study of 5575 researchers published last year reported women are more likely than men to see authorship decisions as unfair.
“Every PI [principal investigator] of every lab is kind of coming up with their own set of rules and deciding who gets authorship—and so there’s no consistency across labs, across fields,” Glennon says. That can leave the door open for implicit bias to creep in. For instance, PIs might reward someone they get along with or who is more visible in the lab, she says. To remedy the situation, funding agencies or institutions should set explicit rules for authorship, she argues. “It cannot be just whatever a PI feels like.”
“We really ought to care about attribution,” adds study lead author Matthew Ross, an economist and associate professor at Northeastern University. If the problem isn’t addressed, “this is going to result in less women getting promoted and less women in leadership positions in science.”