Male scientists appear to frame their research findings more positively than female scientists, irrespective of the importance or novelty of those findings, suggests a study in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.
Positive framing of research was also associated with higher rates of subsequent citations (when research is referenced by others). Citations are often used to gauge a researcher's influence so may have important implications for career progress, say the researchers.
Women remain underrepresented in academic medicine and the life sciences. They also earn lower salaries, receive fewer research grants, and receive fewer citations than their male colleagues.
One factor that may contribute to these gender gaps is differences in the extent to which women promote their research accomplishments relative to men, yet evidence of this in the academic life sciences is lacking.
So a team of researchers decided to test whether men and women differ in how positively they frame their research findings, and whether positive framing is associated with more citations.
They analysed the use of words such as "novel," "unique," or "unprecedented" in titles and abstracts of over 100,000 clinical research articles and over six million general life science articles published between 2002 and 2017.
These positive terms were then compared with the gender of the first and last authors on each article. They also assessed whether gender differences in positive presentation varied with journal impact.
Overall, 17% of clinical research articles involved a female first and last author, whereas 83% of articles involved a male first or last author.
The results show that articles in which the first and last authors were both women were, on average, 12.3% less likely to use positive terms to describe research findings compared with articles in which the first and/or last author was male.
Positive presentation was, on average, associated with 9.4% higher subsequent citations and 13% higher citations in high impact clinical journals, based on their impact factor (a recognised measure of the importance or rank of a journal).
Research suggests that women are held to higher academic standards in peer review, which may help to explain these findings, say the authors.
This is an observational study, so can't establish cause, and the researchers point to some limitations that may have influenced the results. However, the results were similar after accounting for several factors, including journal impact factor, scientific area of study, and year of publication, suggesting that they are robust.
As such, the authors say their study provides "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."
These findings suggest that differences in the degree of self promotion, particularly in the highest impact journals, "may contribute to the well documented gender gaps in academic medicine and in science more broadly," they conclude.
"We must fix the systems that support gender disparities," write Julie Silver at Harvard Medical School and colleagues, in a linked editorial.
Rather than encouraging women to frame their research findings more positively, they say interventions should be deployed to help men exercise more restraint. And they call on journal editors, producers, and consumers of scientific literature to work together "to counteract bias in order to optimally advance science."
This view is supported in an article by Dr Elizabeth Loder, Head of Research at The BMJ, who says we should start using female pronouns as the default for doctors.
The vocabulary used to describe doctors remains stubbornly masculine, she writes. Yet most doctors are or will be women, and our language should reflect that reality.
She acknowledges that she has done the same thing many times, but says it's now time to make a deliberate switch from "he," "him," and "his" to "she," "her," and "hers."
Let's assume that doctors are women until we know otherwise, she concludes.
Peer-reviewed? Yes (research); No (linked editorial, feature)
Type of evidence: observational; opinion
Subjects: Clinical research and life science articles; pronouns