Women take the cautious approach to scientific publication

Papers from female authors crop us less often than expected in the top tier journals...
29 September 2023

Interview with 

Vincent Lariviere, McGill University


Journals on a bookshelf


If you're a top scientist with an amazing discovery to tell everyone about, you send your manuscript to the world's top journals don't you? Well, apparently not, if you're a woman! As he explains to Chris Smith, McGill University's Vincent Lariviere has found that female scientists are much less well represented in the top tier publishing houses, favouring instead publication in worthy, but less “glitzy” venues…

Vincent - Many studies have shown that there's a gender gap in science; that there is less women than expected. And we also observe that women are less likely to receive, let's say, a lot of credit for the science that they do. So one of the markers of credit is citation. So is your research used in other papers that are being published afterwards? So what we try to do is to try to understand a bit more this gender gap in science by looking at women and men's publishing patterns. Where do they publish their findings?

Chris - And where do they publish their findings?

Vincent - Well, unfortunately they are globally submitting their findings in journals that are less prestigious. So, so in science where you publish matters and there's a premium in publishing in a certain set of journals that are very visible, very international, such as Science, Nature, and PNAS. And so what we try to do is looking at whether women were more or less likely to submit their findings to these very elite journals.

Chris - So it's not that the women are sending the work in to the journal and it's being bounced, it's that they're not sending it there in the first place, potentially?

Vincent - Exactly. So women and men's paper are actually accepted or rejected at the same rate. There's no differences in the proportion of women's paper that actually gets rejected. However, women are much less likely to send their work to these elite journals. And the reason for that, and this is actually quite depressing, is that they were considering their work to be of lower quality. So it's a self-perception of their work that makes them not submit their, their work to these journals

Chris - We're slightly put in the cart before the horse because I haven't asked you yet how you arrived at these findings, but it's not - just for clarity - that the women are doing science that's of less interest to these journals and therefore they're not sending them there. The work could be sent there; it's of a sufficient standard and interest, but they're just not choosing to send it to top tier journals?

Vincent - Exactly. And the main reason there is that they consider their work to be not as groundbreaking or sufficiently novel.

Chris - That's a pretty big claim that you are making. So how did you arrive at that conclusion?

Vincent - So we basically surveyed about 5,000 authors of scholarly papers, both men and and women. And we basically asked them, did you ever submit to those journals, which are Science, Nature and PNAS? We also asked them whether their papers were accepted there. And we also asked them whether they were in cases of rejection, whether they were just rejected or rejected after careful, let's say review from from the journal. So it's really true, a survey of, again, several thousand thousand researchers. And again, the finding that we had about submission was observed in every field. So in medicine, in the natural sciences, and as well as in the social sciences, women being less likely to submit to to these top journals.

Chris - And did you ask the women why they hadn't sent their work to these journals when it was worthy of being featured there?

Vincent - Yeah, exactly. Women were much more likely to say that their work was not of a quality that was as high. They were more likely to say that they considered their work to be not as groundbreaking.

Chris - Do you think though that to a certain extent this represents caution? Men traditionally are risk takers, especially younger men, and women tend to be on average a bit more cautious. So is it that they're thinking, well, I could go for the top tier journal, I might get rejected, there's a high rejection rate there, and then I'll end up wasting time having to send it again to somewhere else. So I'll take the cautious, surefire approach that will get me published; whereas the blokes will just say, no, I'll chuck it into the top tier journal. I might get lucky.

Vincent - Absolutely. So that's one of the main hypotheses that we have that would explain the results. But then we need to think about how to mitigate to improving this gender gap that exists.

Chris - And what sort of strategies might there be? What better mentorship, just encouragement, journals actually going out there on a PR exercise saying, hang on a minute, you should send your work here?

Vincent - Yeah, exactly. So, so there's on the one hand such such policies that aim at encouraging women to submit their best work to the best journals. But there's also another angle, which is to stop using the journal as an evaluation criterion. We now understand that there are biases in what these elite journals publish. And so by using indicators such as a journal impact factor, which is an indicator of the global citations and impact that their journal receives, so by using that, you're actually reinforcing the various disparities that exist in the system. So I would lean towards a decrease in the usage of journal level indicators to assess researchers and try to move to more holistic ways of evaluating scientists.


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