Monday, August 28, 2006

Sexism and peer review: impact factor matters.

Thanks to alert reader Jill, who sent along this article:

Christine Wennerås and Agnes Wold: "Nepotism and sexism in peer-review", Nature, Vol 387, 22 May 1997, pp 341-343.
link .

I did a search on pubmed and found a few more relevant articles, some in response to this earlier one:




Out of about 65 hits when I searched for 'peer review gender bias'. I encourage you to go do your own search. In some ways it was gratifying to see that other people had been angry enough to write letters to Nature- and elsewhere- to address this issue.

But they don't all agree, of course. Some are very defensive about analyzing their own best practices and claiming there's no bias whatsoever.

After reading these, the one area where they all seem to agree is that men generally publish in 'higher-impact' journals than woman do.

We all know why that might be:

1. Nepotism in publishing. It's an old boys network, therefore the boys are more likely to know each other.

2. Uh, women read more than men. Come on, you know it's generally true. We read faster and we read more.
So we're likely to think it doesn't matter so much where our papers go, because people will read them anyway.
And the truth is- they will. At least, other women will!

What I found most compelling was the direct comparison in the 1997 study where they looked at number of citations vs. supposed impact factor of the journal.

Hint: Impact factor doesn't actually correlate with 'scientific productivity.'

But hey, it's always good to be reminded that I have to be, what was it, 65-131 points better than my male counterpart.

This goes under category of 'bing cherry on top of the icing on top of a bad day.'

A.k.a why my best friend quit science: why continue to seek approval from people we're pretty sure aren't very smart (the men in charge), when you can leave science and do something else where you'll be appreciated?


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At 7:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you say 'quit science' I assume that you mean 'academic science' - in which case I agree that it's a pretty screwed up place. But if this is your view, I’d like to remind you that all science != academia. There is a whole other world out there. Having come from this world back into academia to get my PhD I can tell you that industry is much more functional in my experience. It’s not perfect by any means, but it IS possible to make a good, stable living without the need to gouge out the eyes of your competitors. The academic career track is a zero sum game – and this is the problem. There is a finite amount of resources to be shared among an ever growing pool of competitors. And it’s not just about money - if you got into a PhD program that means that at least one other person did not. If you land that postdoc/assistant professorship then someone else was denied. This competition leads to the viciousness that your blog seems to document daily.

Yes, the corporate world is intensely competitive as well – but it’s a different sort of competitiveness. Two major differences – in most biotech companies (especially the small ones) all employees succeed or fail together. To this end, they must all work together. So day to day life is a collaboration, not a competition. Secondly, in an ideal world all companies would produce something useful. If this were to happen, they’d all be successful – or at least until all disease was cured. The magic pot of money that funds them would simply grow larger as long as the public had use for all of their products. So the success of these groups is determined by their ability to produce great science - the general public couldn’t care less who produced their next wonderdrug or how well they write grants. Not so with Nature or the NIH.

I don’t really know why I beat my head against the wall with folks locked on the academic mindset. I guess because I too used to be one of you. Then one day I decided ‘why not’ and got a job with a company and it changed my life. I hate to see good people ruined by the perception that “only the good survive in academia, therefore if I do not survive I am not good.” The reality is that a lot of good people ARE in academia – but there are an equal number of excellent scientists that haven’t darkened the door of a university in years.

How does any of this relate to gender bias? Well, I see gender bias as one more way the ugly competition of the zero sum game is played out. The above may seem a bit off topic, but in my mind it cuts to the core of the problem. If good science was all that mattered in academia then there’d be no space for this nonsense. Unfortunately, there are a lot of good scientists that will fail miserably in the current system by definition. Against this background, things other than science start to influence success. Someone has to lose, after all.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger shiva said...

Interesting facts! Seems like feminism and science joined hands to bash men out of their wits. Nevertheless, being a stranger who just crossed by your blog, I found the information a little mind-boggling (please don't misintrepret it with lack of intelligence or patience). Any which way, it was perhaps never meant for me. So I excuse myself. I am new blogger. Will invite you to my article (which, I am sure, will be on subject totally opposite to your field of interest.


At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


These are interesting issues in academia. However, as a new graduate in biomedical sciences with one publication under progress, I wonder if there is any discrimination against me!

A case in point, when I submitted my pre-doctoral fellowship grant, the reveiwers specifically wrote me back to tell me that my english was not good! Whatever happened to the science I wrote?

I do agree there are faculty with sexist leanings, but I am not sure, if thats widespread as the articles suggest. I do not think its the end of the world, and I do feel confident one of these days I will publish in good journals.

mr. Dubious

At 6:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have noticed that my rejection letters are a lot more snide when I submit to journals that aren't anonymous submission. Not a high enough N to be proof itself, but perhaps worthy of a psychology or sociology study.

At 5:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am amused to see that you consider that men are discriminating against women in journals when you yourself argue that women read more and faster than their male counterparts, a statement that seems to be quite discriminatory in nature. This is funny, because the essentialist biological argument that there are inherent differences between the sexes--something which feminists disagree with, hence the 'discrimination' (from an egalitarian, equalitist point of view)--are exactly what it seems you are arguing for. Your anecdotal evidence might work for your readers who share you same feelings, but I imagine that it isn't necessary agreed with across the board. Mens Verbal GRE is much higher than women, which would seem to indicate to me that men actually read more, or maybe just comprehend more, than women do.

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

2. Uh, women read more than men. Come on, you know it's generally true. We read faster and we read more.
So we're likely to think it doesn't matter so much where our papers go, because people will read them anyway.

It's fascinating that you've relied on generalization and stereotyping of gender in your commentary on the same... imagine the reaction if you'd read a statement like "Uh, men can think more logically than women. Come on, you know it's generally true." This is exactly the sort of thinking that has resulted in our current situation wherein women are assumed to be less capable. Assuming men to be less well read or slower readers based on you thinking that it is "generally true" is lazy, and perpetuates gender stereotyping rather than stepping beyond it.

At 7:57 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I think it's hilarious people got so mad about the statement that women read more than men. I guess this is where the tone of voice is whatever you take it to be. I'll have to work better at my wink wink, nudge nudge online.

And you always act like wome are getting hysterical when we say it's unfair to make generalizations. Does it ever occur to my readers that I'm just trying to push people's buttons? Nothing I say here is directed at any one person. So why get so upset?

Apparently I found a button. I'll have to file that away.

I think it's kind of fun to reverse gender roles, but I think it's unfair that we get criticized for making fun of men when men do it to us all the time. Today, for example, I was in the sort of mood to tell someone to suck my dick. But I didn't quite have the balls to actually do it.

I'm not sure it pays to be politically correct across the board- everyone still says offensive shit, they just do it in ever-more segregrated sub-groups.

To the person whose English was criticized, your English doesn't seem that bad to me! And this is something I always want to ask, and I love the way you said it: Whatever happened to the science I wrote?

To the vehemently industry-oriented person, I know where you're coming from, but I'm still not convinced industry is going to make me happy.

And when I say quit science, I mean quit science. There are plenty of other things I could do that I'm sure would make me happier and be easier to do. Would I be contributing as much to society? Probably not. Would I be making more money? Not necessarily. Would I be less stressed out? Hell yeah.
Would I be bored? Quite possibly.

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"but I think it's unfair that we get criticized for making fun of men when men do it to us all the time"

I am not sure scientists go on a public forum like a blog and say things like Men read/comprehend things better than woman. However, you could have had personal interactions and experiences that may well justify your stereotyping of men.

If pushing buttons is what you intended, I wish you make that clear, since some of us naively come here looking up to a senior postdoc and her experiences in job search. Atleast, I started visiting your blog because I am in my first month of my postdoc and I truly look up to you. Yes! I am male and gender blind. Thats another reason why your readers could be possible ticked off, because we read your blogs in great sincereity! Where did gender come here?


At 9:17 AM, Anonymous turtlebella said...

Found you via ScienceWoman's blog. And I am pretty surprised at some of the semi-hostile comments you've gotten by talking about this gender bias in peer review. Seems like some don't want to acknowledge that there might be a problem. Like if they don't experience it, surely there isn't a problem. I'll admit that I don't know much about feminist theory and the intersection with history/sociology of science. But I do think there is a gender bias (as well as a host of other biases, like if the paper's author is already famous, this new paper of theirs must be just great even if it is NOT, this is particularly frustrating for a new person to see/read) in reviews, publishing, promotion. Anonymity in authorship of the paper being reviewed as well as the anonymity of the reviewer I think would be a great way to move forward on this issue. I'd like to ask-- what are the drawbacks of this anonymity? I've heard a few respected, tenured faculty say that they think this is a good idea. I guess some folks that coast on their fame or that of their advisor would be less happy. But if they are doing good work then it shouldn't matter.

A few years ago I read a paper that suggested that the gender difference in the numbers of men and women in tenured positions has NOT caught up in biology, even though enough time has passed for the more recent greater number of women to have moved up through the ranks. And that's in BIOLOGY, which probably has more women than disciplines like chemistry, and certainly way more than something like physics. There IS a problem there, folks. It's funny, as beginning scientists women often feel like the whole women-in-science thing is bogus and it doesn't matter if you are a woman, you will be just as successful as any man. But I've heard many women that as they move through the process, grad school, post-doc, tenure track position, tenure, etc. etc. they realize more and more that there are differences in how they are treated as scientists. I think it might be the case that women are expected to perform and be just like men, who were here first and determined the.way.things.are. And sometimes those expectations are unrealistic. Personally, I think there should be more flexiblity in determining what the

My perspective is as someone who is leaving science. Yup, leaving leaving, not moving over to industry, for one thing there are not TOO many industry-type jobs for evolutionary biologists! Although I do know that working for biomedical corporations can be a much more rewarding job than academia, at least in certain ways, for one, financial compensation. But I've decided that constantly having to live up to the tacit and overt expectations to be successful in this career are not ones that I want to spend my life struggling to meet.

I've gone on FOREVER, sorry! But I'm glad you put this out there, Ms. Phd. Thanks!

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous TW Andrews said...

why continue to seek approval from people we're pretty sure aren't very smart (the men in charge), when you can leave science and do something else where you'll be appreciated?

Uh, good question. In industry, there may be some residual sexism at the highest levels, but I have a feeling that's only a matter of time (at least on the scientific side--not so sure about the management/business side). As far as I can tell, women are as likely, if not more--relative to the overall percentage of women for a given experience cohort--to head departments and research groups. I really fail to understand what the undying committment to academia is given all the hurdles which are placed in the way of an average Post-doc, to say nothing of a female one.

Industry: More money, better chances for advancement, less sexism.

Academia: If you manage to become a PI (good luck, tell me how it works out for you!), you'll be able to direct your own research--assuming the NIH is funding that sort of thing when you're interested in doing it.


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