Women scientists face paternity disputes more often than men

Among the findings of a new survey, manuscript writing and data analysis were ranked as the most important contributions to research papers. Credit: Nenad Stojkovic, CC BY 2.0

Katalin Karikó’s work on messenger RNA has enabled the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. But early in her career, says the biochemist, she suffered a setback when her name was removed from a manuscript that was in press. She explains that her supervisor paid the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences $ 150 to remove his name after learning that Karikó had tried to find a job in another lab. “This is why I have no PNAS paper, ”says Karikó, who is currently at the University of Pennsylvania.

Karikó suspects that many scientists have been in similar situations, and the poll results Posted in Scientists progress September 1 suggest she is right. More than half of the survey participants said they had disagreements about paternity. The survey also found that female scientists are more likely than men to be involved in paternity disputes.

Study co-author Cassidy Sugimoto, a computer scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, attributes the findings in part to the fact that men are more likely to be principal investigators and therefore can make unilateral decisions about paternity, which can lead to the devaluation of women’s work. “What we are seeing is that women want to have clearer guidelines,” Sugimoto says. “I think it’s because it protects them, and it gives them tools to use in conversations” with PI.

The global survey asked 5,575 researchers (3,566 men and 2,009 women) in the social sciences, medical sciences, natural sciences and engineering about how often they had disputes over author lists on manuscripts. Such disputes may relate to whether an author should be listed for a minor contribution, or whether an author is unfairly omitted after having done a lot of work, or in what order the authors are listed, especially for the first and last coveted places on the list. Fifty-three percent of participants said they encountered disagreements over who should be included as an author or the order of the names.

Women were more likely than men to have participated in disputes over whether a researcher should be named on an article (about 53%, versus 45%) as well as in disagreements over the order of the lists. ‘authors (43%, versus 36%). Overall, over 23% of participants said they received less credit than they deserved, compared to just over 18% of men. And men surveyed (11%) were more likely than women (8%) to say they received more credit than they should have.

Paternity disputes have led to retractions of papers and even lawsuits. One problem is that different disciplines have different standards on the contributions that justify authorship. Another is that the research community lacks consensus on how authorship lists can be constructed objectively. Some academics have developed standardized criteria and processes, including point-based systems, or have adopted arbitrary ways out of dead ends. For example, virologist Sizun Jiang of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston says he persuaded the co-authors listed first on a July 2021 newsletter. Frontiers in immunology paper to agree to play three rounds of the Super Smash Bros. video game. to decide the order of their names.

According to the survey, just under 40% of women, compared to around 33% of men, discuss paternity expectations, such as who will be an author and how author lists will be organized, at the start of a project. More men (19%) than women (15%) said they discuss fatherhood at the end of a project, usually with only the most experienced collaborators.

Both approaches have their flaws, Sugimoto says. Having discussions early on can reduce the actual work that gets done, while leaving it late can mean those who did the last work get priority over previous contributors.

When asked about the importance of different types of article contributions, men and women rated manuscript writing and data analysis as the most important tasks. Women, however, are more likely than men to be involved in technical work such as performing experiments, collecting data, and performing statistical tests. Despite this, both men and women considered technical work to be the least important.

Sugimoto says she suspects fatherhood practices would become more equitable if more women held senior research positions. But to access these high-level positions, you must first publish articles with their names at the top of the author lists. Previous studies have shown that women are less likely than men to be listed as lead authors early in their careers, which often contributes to the decision to quit science. “We always find that women are leaving science at a higher rate” compared to men, Sugimoto says. “They do not have the dominant author positions that are necessary to follow an academic trajectory.”

Ludo Waltman, deputy director of the Center for Scientific and Technological Studies (CWTS) at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said it was important to highlight the prevalence of such disputes in science. “This is something that should be of concern to us, because it suggests that there is a lot of injustice in fatherhood,” he says. However, he notes that the gender differences identified in the study tend to be small.

Lisette Jong, who also studies research funding at CWTS Leiden, points out that the new study does not include a non-binary gender assignment. “It doesn’t recognize the existence of other people who don’t identify as male or female,” she says.

Paternity issues are among the most common subjects of complaints lodged with the Publications Ethics Committee (COPE), explains Daniel Kulp, president of the organization. Running COPE advice suggests that agreement should be reached on author lists before an article is submitted for review, and if a dispute arises when an article is submitted for peer review, the review process should be interrupted. If the work is already published, advises COPE, a correction must be issued.

Sugimoto suggests that NPs should be required by their institutions to produce mentorship plans outlining their authorship practices and that journal editors should ask all study authors to confirm exactly what they did and what they did. they agree with the list of authors. In addition, scientists and publishers could adopt a systematic way of reporting the contributions of each researcher using tools such as the CRedit taxonomy, which defines 14 distinct roles such as conceptualization, data retention and oversight.

Editor’s Note, September 2: The first sentence of the fifth paragraph has been updated to correct comparisons between the frequency with which men and women experience author conflict.

Editor’s Note, September 2: The first sentence of the fourth paragraph has been updated to correct the number of men and women who responded to the survey.


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