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Friday, June 13, 2008

Bias Against Female First-Author Papers

This is a follow-up to a posting back in January where I mentioned a recently published article by Budden et al. (2008) [see Bias Against Women?]. That article claimed to show evidence of a systematic bias against papers with women as first authors. The bias was mitigated when a particular journal switched to a double-blind reviewing system. This resulted in a significant increase in the number of published papers with women as first authors.

I was first alerted to the problem when GrrlScientist posted a favorable review of the paper, agreeing with the conclusion that journal reviewers were biased against papers with female first authors [Women, Science and Writing].

My first reaction was skeptical. These are biology papers and it didn't seem plausible that reviewers would be biased against papers with female first authors. There might possibly be a bias against papers from a lab run by women but that's not the same thing. In the biological sciences the principle investigator is often the last author and not the first. Furthermore, in my experience there wasn't any discrimination against female scientists at this level (publication). Half of our graduate students are women—why would we be biased against papers with one of them as first author? The study just didn't make sense.

Many Sandwalk readers interpreted my skepticism as an attempt to dismiss all forms of sexism in science. That was not my intent. Far from it, in fact, because I was very much aware of a particular case of sexism that greatly troubled me. What makes me angry is that I know of overtly sexist behaviors that are not challenged by scientists in the same department who are, themselves, not sexist. The subject of sexism came up at SciBarCamp in February where there was a session organized by physics professors to discuss sexism in physics departments. There seems to be a major problem in physics.

If you read the comments in my January posting you'll see how difficult it was to separate out the issue of whether the particular study on double-blind reviews was a legitimate scientific study, and whether sexism is common in science.

At the risk of encountering the same problem again, let's look at some recent events. A re-analysis of the original publication data has been published by Webb et al. (2008). They looked more carefully at the data from journals with double-blind review and from comparable journals that identify the authors. They found that the number of papers with women as first authors showed a general increase in most journals. The trend in the journal that initiated double-blind review back in 2001 was not significantly different. Thus, they conclude that there's no evidence of systemic bias against female first authors.

This is one of the points that I mentioned in the comments to my January posting but several other readers dismissed it. They implied that any attempt to question the data in the original paper was, itself, sexist.

The following correction appeared in the last week's (June 4th) issue of Nature.
The Editorial 'Working double-blind' (Nature 451, 605–606; 2008) referred to a study(1) that found more female first-author papers were published using a double-blind, rather than a single-blind, peer-review system. The data reported in ref. 1 have now been re-examined (2). The conclusion of ref. 1, that Behavioral Ecology published more papers with female first authors after switching to a double-blind peer-review system, is not in dispute. However, ref. 2 reports that other similar ecology journals that have single-blind peer-review systems also increased in female first-author papers over the same time period. After re-examining the analyses, Nature has concluded that ref. 1 can no longer be said to offer compelling evidence of a role for gender bias in single-blind peer review. In addition, upon closer examination of the papers listed in PubMed on gender bias and peer review, we cannot find other strong studies that support this claim. Thus, we no longer stand by the statement in the fourth paragraph of the Editorial, that double-blind peer review reduces bias against authors with female first names.
I believe that Nature has done the right thing in retracting their earlier claim. The problem of sexism in science is serious and needs to be addressed. But it doesn't do anyone any good if one side is supporting their claims with sloppy science. It would be good if we could get beyond that.

It may not be easy. The authors of the original paper have published a critique of the re-analysis (Budden et al. 2008b). They dispute the re-interpretation although they admit that their analysis is subject to different interpretations.

If the original paper was any other kind of scientific paper the criticism would be harsh. It will be interesting to see if any of the original strong supporters of the claim of sexist bias against female first authors are willing to reconsider their position on that particular issue.

[Hat Tip: R. Ford Dennison]

Budden, A., Tregenza, T., Aarssen, L., Koricheva, J., Leimu, R. and Lortie, C. (2008a) Women, Science and Writing. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(1), 4-6. [PubMed] [doi:10.1016/j.tree.2007.07.008] (ref 1.)

Budden, A.E., Lortie, C.J., Tregenza, T., Aarssen, L., Koricheva, J., and Leimu, R. (2008b) Response to Webb et al.: Double-blind review: accept with minor revisions. Trends in Ecology and Evolution [doi:10.1016/j.tree.2008.04.001]

Webb, T. J., O'Hara, B. and Freckleton, R. P. (2008) Does double-blind review benefit female authors? Trends in Ecology and Evolution [doi:10.1016/j.tree.2008.03.003] (ref 2.)

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