Shannon McCauley: The Role of Gender in Authorship Bias

Who gets the credit in scientific articles is a pressing question (covered in a previous opinion piece), and deciding how to award authorship is especially relevant given the impact that papers in high-impact journals can have on the trajectory of a scientist early in their career.

With this in mind, I spoke with Dr. Shannon McCauley of the University of Toronto-Mississauga during her November visit to the University of Arkansas (more about Shannon can be found in our previous interview). In addition to giving a talk on some of her research, Shannon also led a workshop on authorship in science. I sat down with her afterwards to talk more about the subject.

Adam Hasik [AH]: Can you take us through the concept of authorship bias?

Shannon McCauley [SM]: I’ve been working with two recent graduates from the University of Toronto, Dachin Frances and Connor Fitzpatrick, and we got very interested in the question of who ends up on papers. It’s often very clear if someone is going to be the first author on a paper. They’re the person who was primarily responsible for the research, they write the first draft themselves and carry out the majority of the subsequent work. Often at times the senior author, the person who supervises the research, they’ll be the last author. They might run the lab, get the funding, or have a lot of the conceptual underpinnings.

But many papers these days have a lot of other authors. And those papers are important too, particularly for early career scientists, who aren’t going to graduate with a huge number of papers. They’ll have first author papers that they’ve led, but their contributions to other papers are a big component of their CV, and the other work they’ve put in. And so we got very interested questions like what are the criteria people use for authorship? Are they being used consistently? Is there potential for bias? Based on a variety of characters, but particularly gender. Partly gender because it’s one of the easier things to categorise on a very coarse level. And so, Conner and Dacha have looked at a series of articles over a time series, back to 1987. They checked who are the co-authors on these papers, what is the gender representation, and how is it affected by the gender of the first author, or the senior author, ie. the drivers of the research.

The National Science Foundation has done a wonderful job of actually keeping data on how many PhDs are awarded and the gender of who they’re awarded to, and since 1997, we’re right around 50%. So we’re in the range of parity. Now a PhD is an advanced degree, so you would expect them to be publishing, so you would expect to see about a 50/50 ratio when it comes to gender of authors, and we definitely do not. Overall, women are on fewer papers, in all of these positions.

AH: Did you see patterns based on the first and last authors?

SM: Yes, their gender affects the probability that the co-authors are female. When the first/senior author are female, a higher fraction of the co-authors are also female. And when they’re male, it’s lower. This may be driven by a couple of things. One may be implicit bias. Often with co-authors it’s not black or white, it’s not like this person definitely should be on here or not. You have a set of criteria, and the people who meet that criteria, you give authorship to. But it’s not clear that people are always applying these criteria explicitly. It’s not consistent. And we really haven’t as a field, developed really clear metrics of who should be on a paper. So then it kind of comes down to who do you think should be on the paper? And those two main people are the deciders of that.

And so one possibility, implicit bias, not explicit bias, maybe driving female contributors to be less likely to be an authored position on that paper than male contributors. And so a potential solution is that authorship criteria be very explicit. And that people who are involved in the project be given opportunities to earn authorship. So if people say that they’d like to be an author, they can do some of the analyses, or like to contribute more to the writing, because they now know what those criteria are and can read those.

The other possibility is that it’s a product of very different research networks. And so that women may be collaborating more with women, and men more with men. That doesn’t seem inherently problematic in the sense that people collaborate with who they want to collaborate with. On the other hand, we know that careers aside, it’s probably good for science to have more collaboration. Papers with mixed gender authorship actually had higher citation rates. And that’s probably because they contained better science. Bringing a diversity of perspectives is important. And it can produce new insights and better science that gets cited more.

AH: So that diversity of thought is important?

SM: Absolutely. By getting people who look at very different systems, they can ask questions that you never thought about. The other issue is that it does affect careers. And it’s important in early careers, because that difference of a couple papers can make a huge difference. Undergraduates for example, are often involved in research, and sometimes their contributions should be rewarded with some form of authorship, sometimes they shouldn’t be. So are we offering authorship to these undergraduates in the same way as we do more senior workers? Are we giving them the criteria so they know what to do to earn authorship? An undergraduate who has a paper has a much better chance of getting not only into graduate school, but getting a fellowship in graduate school, which frees up time for more research. So those early events can be really important.

And the same thing for graduate students, they can often be funded through research assistant positions, or through teaching assistant positions. Research assistant (RA) positions [very often earn] authorship, you might be working on your advisor’s project, but your contributions are sufficient to then earn you authorship. Teaching assistant positions really don’t lend themselves to that. They can be good experience, they’re important, but again, there’s often gender disparity.

AH: I believe as a grad student, your department also reviewed what sort of people were getting RA positions?

SM: Men were getting a really large fraction of the RA positions, women were not. And again, that might mean one extra publication. One extra publication, when you might only have 4 or 5 publications, is a huge difference.

AH: And then that adds up into more males higher up in academia.

SM: We see often this fairly sharp transition, whereby our graduate students are 50/50, are postdocs are less so, and then our faculty tend to be significantly male-biased. You wind up with this fairly uniform group of people. Wonderful people, but very uniform, and I don’t think that’s good for science. And if people are leaving science because they want to do something else, fantastic. It’s a big world, there’s lots of cool stuff to do. But if they’re leaving because they didn’t get a post-doc or a job, in part because of all these little differences, micro differences that build on each other, then that’s a real problem.

To read more about authorship bias, click here.

To read our first interview with Shannon, click here.

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