There are many highly productive women scientists in the ASCB but, in general, are women scientists less productive than men scientists? Studies have shown that women scientists publish fewer articles per year in peer-reviewed journals than men. Let’s look more closely at the recent data on the average annual number of articles published by women and men, the change in publication rates over time, and another measure of productivity, the citation index.

Average Annual Number of Articles

Data from earlier studies indicated that compared to men, women scientists published fewer papers per year, and the women’s publication rate was apparently unrelated to their marital status or parental status[1]. Recent studies have confirmed that women continue to publish at a lower rate than men. In the most recent study, men published, on average, 2.8 papers per year compared with 2.3 for women[2]. However, two factors which contribute to this difference were identified. First, there is a greater proportion of women than men who do not publish: 30-40% of women with PhDs were non-publishing compared to 20-30% of the men[3]. If only the actively publishing scientists are compared, the overall differences in productivity are reduced. Second, recent data confirm the previously recognized impact of differences in upper extremes of productivity. The mean is sensitive to the record of those men who publish at a significantly higher rate[3,4].

Change in Publication Rates over Time

In long-term studies, differences in productivity between genders decrease over the second decade of careers[3]. At that point, the women’s productivity is increasing while the men’s is leveling off. Others have noted that different career patterns for women and men may be related to their differing familial responsibilities, especially in the first decade of an academic career. These data suggest that a woman scientist’s career development may be somewhat delayed but successful in the end. Fortunately, women have a longer life span. Similarly, a delayed pattern may explain the finding that women were first or second author for more years after their postdoctoral positions than men[3]. One interpretation of these results, based upon common unwritten rules of authorship order, is that women scientists are active at the bench for a longer period than men. An alternative explanation is that women are more likely to draft the manuscripts rather than their graduate students.

The Citation Index

Another important measure of productivity is the citation index. In two studies – one of biochemists and one of biologists – papers by women were cited significantly more frequently than those by men. Thus, although women publish fewer papers per year, the average number of citations per year was similar for men and women scientists by their fifteenth career year[3]. Even more impressive, when citations per article were evaluated, women’s articles received significantly higher numbers of citations throughout the period studied. As shown in Figure 1. over 18 career years, women’s articles had on average 9 to 13 citations per article vs. 7 to 9 for men’s[3]. In the most recent study of a small cohort of biologists, the women’s citations per article averaged 24.4 vs. 14.4 for the men’s[2]. A high citation index is a strong indication of the impact of the research: the work published by women is not marginal. The higher citation index in conjunction with a lower publication rate is consistent with commonly held beliefs that women scientists are more cautious and careful in methods, pay more attention to detail, show greater thoroughness, and attempt to present the whole story.

Your Publication Record and Your Career

Whereas it seems that one’s publication record can be, and is, used as a gender neutral variable, gender may play a role in professional advancement in some instances. For example, in an early study, men without publications in the first 7 or 8 years of their careers were in academic positions at institutions with greater prestige than the women with no publications[1]. Presumably, in the absence of independent “objective” indicators, gender bias takes over. Thus, gender may be a handicap for the “less outstanding women scientists”.

A recent finding is that a greater proportion of women’s publications are in non-peer-reviewed publications like book chapters and articles in conference proceedings[5]. Possibly, women perceive difficulty in publishing in peer-reviewed journals and/or want to avoid rejection. When I put the question of dealing with manuscript rejection to the larger scientific community, the frequent recommendation was that one must start the process of writing manuscripts (and grants) while acknowledging the prevailing rejection rate. However few are the immediate acceptances, the number is still better than zero – which is the number if you do not submit. And you do not have to be a cell biologist to figure that out. In the words of hockey great Wayne Gretsky, “you miss 100% of the shots you never take”. It is important to develop mechanisms for coping with rejection in order to prevent paralysis, thus failure, in science. Many scientists would probably agree with Winston Churchill who said, “success is nothing else than going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm”.

Of particular concern is the impact of one’s publication record on her/his academic advancement and funding. The recent studies[5] suggest that peer review of CVs takes into account journal standing and citation index and, thus, does not rely on the single factor – absolute number of publications per year. The practical advice from these studies is that when your productivity is under evaluation, check your citation index. If it is strong, then make sure that it is brought to the attention of those who are evaluating you. Lastly – hang in there. Keep publishing regularly. With time your publication record will reflect your contributions to the body of scientific information which is, after all, the point of measuring productivity.

References

  1. J.R. Cole (1979). Fair Science: Women in the Scientific Community. New York, Free Press.
  2. G. Sonnert and G. Holton (1996). American Scientist 84: 63-71.
  3. J.S. Long (1992). Social Forces 71(1): 159-178.
  4. H. Zuckerman, J.R. Cole, and J.T. Breur, eds. (1991). The Outer Circle: Women in the Scientific Community. New York, Norton.
  5. G. Sonnert (with assistance of G. Holton) (1995). Gender Differences in Science Careers: The Project Access Study. New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press.
Sandra K. Masur

Sandra Kazahn Masur is currently Professor of Ophthalmology at the Icahn School of Medicine–Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. She is a native New Yorker. Her parents were Polish Jewish immigrants who transferred their thwarted educational ambitions to Sandra and her sister. Masur attended New York’s celebrated public High School of Music and Art but was drawn away from art toward science and a BA in biology at City College. She learned electron microscopy and earned her PhD working on cellular endocrinology in the laboratory of Lee Peachey at Columbia (where she roomed for a time with Goodenough). Masur joined Mt. Sinai’s Department of Physiology and Biophysics in 1968. Her research program today employs a corneal stroma model to study the interconnections between extracellular matrix, cell-cell interaction, and growth factors in wound healing. Masur has been the chair of WICB since 2009.


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