Male Scientists Talk Up Their Work More Than Women, Even If Isn't Better

Even if they get the same results, men are more likely to present them as a big deal – and be rewarded for it. Jasminko Ibrakovic/Shutterstock

In general, there is a difference between the way male and female scientists talk about their research – and it's possibly contributing to men's greater success in climbing the academic ladder.

Dr Marc Lerchenmueller of the University of Mannheim searched more than 100,000 peer-reviewed clinical medical research papers and 6 million popular science articles for 25 words that put a positive spin on the work. Words like “promising” and “exciting” were 12 percent more likely to make it into these reports if at least one of the first and last authors was a man. The difference was almost twice as large for work published in the most prestigious journals but didn't vary by field. First authors usually do the largest share of the work a paper describes, while the final author is the team leader and often chooses the research topic.

This phrasing seems to bring rewards, as Lerchanmueller reports in the British Medical Journal that papers carrying them were about 9 percent more likely to be cited in subsequent papers and 13 percent more in papers in the most prestigious journals. With career advancement in science frequently depending on getting one's papers cited, this sort of coverage may determine whether someone lands a promotion, or even if they get to keep working in science at all.

There's no evidence the men's papers were actually more significant. Instead, Lerchenmueller and co-authors think their work offers "large scale evidence that men in academic medicine and the life sciences more broadly may present their own research more favorably than women and that these differences may help to call attention to their research through higher downstream citations." The findings fit with past research showing women are more likely than men to underestimate their abilities and suffer more social consequences for being seen to over-promote. Editors may also be contributing to the gap.

If men are talking up their achievements more than women and benefiting as a result, the obvious question is which gender needs to change. It might be easier for academic institutions to run training courses for women on how to promote their work than to persuade men to back off a little, since the personal incentives are already there. However, that may not work out well for science. Over-hyping results is generally seen as a problem that undermines public confidence in the long run.

In an accompanying editorial, Harvard's Dr Julie Silver argues the differences need to be addressed if gender bias in the sciences is to be reduced, but warns against the “fix the women” approach.

 

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