Scientists publish findings in medical journals to share their work with the wider scientific community. One way to recognise the influence of an article on the community is by considering the number of citations it receives. This number indicates how many other publications rely on their work. A new study has found that work published by a female author in a high impact medical journal is significantly less likely to be cited in other publications in comparison to similar articles authored by men. How did this bias originate and what can we do about it?
Between 2015 and 2018, 5554 papers were collected from five elite medical journals including The New England Journal of Medicine (the most cited medical journal in the world). Study results published within JAMA Network Open first highlighted that 36% of the primary, and 26% of the senior authors within the papers collected were female. What’s more, papers with a female primary author had one third fewer median citations than papers with a male author. Papers with a female senior author received a quarter fewer median citations and papers with both a female primary and senior author were cited half as much as similar articles with two male authors.
Is citation counting important? Citations have long been used to evaluate the significance of a paper. Researchers cite publications for varying, sometimes subjective, reasons. These can range from paying homage to scientific greats of the field, correcting previous papers, and identifying previous work which deserves more credit. However, sometimes citations are just made to make a paper look more respectable. In fact, previous research has shown that only about 30% of deserving references of a paper are listed. Nonetheless, citation counting is still used today to evaluate the importance of a paper to the field. It also provides an accessible, simple, numeric value for institutions to assess the impact of a scientist when they consider who to hire or give grants to. In fact, this citation bias is putting the progression of female researchers’ careers on the line.
Citations have long been used to evaluate the significance of a paper
Why is there this bias? A current bias within medical research involves the visibility of researchers within the community. Female researchers are under-represented at scientific conferences. This could mean that female scientists do not have a platform to share their work so readily. Conference attendees may remember the work of conference speakers and cite this in comparison to searching for other similar material online. Women also have smaller STEM networks so, compared to collaboratively sharing their work, female researchers may remain less represented than males within medical journals.
It is not just about other scientists citing your work, however. How often do you self-cite your work? A study published in Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World in 2017 analysed 1.5 million research papers. It found that almost 10% of all citations between 1779 and 2011 were self-citations. It also published results highlighting that in the last 20 years, men were 70% more likely to self-cite than a woman.
Implicit bias could also be involved, says Julie Silver, medical researcher at Harvard Medical School. An unconscious bias is a prejudice one may hold whilst living in an unequal society. It is certainly possible to genuinely support equality and yet still hold prejudices unconsciously. Within the scientific community this could mean that you may not attend a conference with a female speaker, or you may not value her work as much as if a man presented it to you. Research spearheaded by Silvers has shown that medical societies are less likely to advertise female researchers’ work in newsletters or give them awards. This once again highlights the importance of visibility. If women are not getting the visibility they deserve in the field, other researchers are less likely to remember their work. Reshma Jagsi, radiation oncologist at the University of Michigan suggests “it shows just how much impact unconscious biases can have”.
There are simple fixes which can help shift this bias, but they require commitment. Conferences should invite female speakers so they can share their work and underfunded female led scientific fields, such as gynaecology, deserve more grants. It is also important to begin the conversation with researchers about how they choose to cite papers. Considering the gender of the papers you cite could help support female researchers who have a lot to give to the scientific community.