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Woman Authorship in Pre-print Versus Peer-Reviewed Oral Health-Related Publications: A Two-Year Observational Study

Lavanya Rajendran, Namita Khandelwal, Jocelyne Feine, Effie Ioannidou

Preprint posted on July 06, 2021 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.06.25.449988v2

Mind the gap: representation of female authors in oral health science preprints not equal to that of peer-reviewed publications

Selected by Helen Robertson

Background

Women are increasingly entering careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). Despite this, underrepresentation of women persists throughout academia and related industries, especially in senior academic positions. A recent analysis found that women represent just ~25% of full professors of biological sciences in US institutions, despite more equal representation at graduate level (1). Women in academic roles are also much more likely to be involved with teaching as opposed to focusing primarily on research. This, alongside other professional and personal obligations – including childcare – means that women often take on subordinate roles in research projects and might be less recognised for their research output (2).

Despite more recent advocacy for alternative measures of academic and research success (3), publishing papers is still the primary route by which STEMM productivity is measured. Authorship order on a paper is used to denote the role of the author on the paper: ‘last’ author is the principal investigator on the project, who developed the research project and sought funding, whilst ‘first’ author is likely to have carried out experiments and helped analyse data and write the paper (4). Many studies have found that women are underrepresented as both first and last authors in published scientific papers (4). The reasons behind this are multi-factorial and not easy to unpick: less time to focus on research likely results in fewer papers, but there is also the suggestion that male-dominated editorial boards are open to gender bias, or that women are less likely to advocate for their role in a project on a paper (5). In addition to this, the traditional peer-review process for scientific papers is recognised to be both slow and unpredictable and unfavourable to junior scientists who need citeable publications for career progression.

The growth in popularity of preprints – scientific manuscripts published on a server prior to or instead of undergoing peer-review – in biological and health science disciplines in the past five years has aided the rapid and freely accessible dissemination of new results, without having to wait for review and publishing time scales. Preprints can also aid as citable references of work for job or research grant applications, making them beneficial for authors and readers alike.

In this preprint, Rajendran et al. investigated the role that preprints might play in bridging the gender gap in author representation in oral health research. Oral health sciences encompass diseases and conditions related to the oral cavity, and work in this field is often conducted by those working in dental related fields. Similar to other STEMM fields, women in dentistry also face difficulties in career progression and underrepresentation. Only 31% of dentistry-related faculty positions in the US are held by women, and a recent study indicated that women are more likely to be in junior faculty positions, with a smaller percentage of women in last author position on oral health science research papers compared to first author.

Given these challenges and the possible democratisation of research that preprints offer, the authors of this preprint investigated the difference in prevalence of publications related to oral health sciences authored by women between peer-reviewed journals and preprint servers.

Study detail and findings

The authors of the preprint investigated three different aspects of authorship of oral science related publications: i) representation of women as first and last author in preprint vs peer-review publications, ii) composition of gender in first-last author pairs, and iii) the correlation between US institution geographical location and female authorship location. To do this, they analysed authorship gender composition, geographical location of authors, and Altmetrics scores of 69 preprints (posted on bioRxiv) and 69 peer-reviewed publications (via PubMed), found using the keyword search ‘oral health’.

A greater percentage of female first and last authors were found in peer-reviewed journal articles compared to preprints. Women were first authors in 63.8% and last authors in 62.3% of peer-reviewed publications, compared with 42.0% and 33.3% in preprints, respectively. The authors suggest that the slower uptake of preprinting by women working in oral sciences could be due to greater risk aversion: preprinting has only gained popularity in a comparatively recent timeframe, and women are reportedly less likely to take risks that could have a perceived negative effect. Men are also reportedly more likely to submit work to ‘high level’ journals, whereas women are more likely to submit work to a journal with a higher likelihood of acceptance. A lack of confidence in their work – despite work by women being of a better research and writing standard than men in some fields – might also deter women from submitting to a preprint server, where manuscripts are freely accessible without any formal peer-review.

Woman-woman author pairs (first and last author position) represented 47.7% of peer-reviewed publications. Gender homophily is common in academia and thought to occur for a number of reasons, including gender bias and the benefits of working with like-minded people, or those with a similar work ethic. This, in addition to the possible reasons for women being hesitant of preprinting, means that woman-woman co-authorships were more prevalent in peer-reviewed oral science papers, whilst man-man co-authorships were more common in preprints.

Although preprints were more prevalent in institutions in the Northeast and South of the US, no significant correlation was found between geographical location and the gender of first or last author of a publication.

Why I chose this preprint

It is well-known that gender representation in STEMM, particularly in senior academic positions, is skewed towards men, and that men author more scientific papers than women in many scientific fields.

Preprints have gained popularity very rapidly in the biological and health sciences and offer many benefits to publication authors and readers alike. Preprints could go some way to level the gender playing field in science publications, with submitting to a preprint server avoiding biases or delays associated with peer-review. The authors also note that, of the oral science papers they analysed, releasing a preprint on bioRxiv is associated with a 49% higher Altmetric score and 36% more citations than articles without a preprint, suggesting that preprinting is a good option for boosting paper visibility.

Despite this, it is clear from this study that women are perhaps reluctant to preprint their work in the oral sciences, and it is possible that this is also true for other biological or medical science disciplines. As a preprint highlighting initiative, preLights looks to raise the profile of and discuss interesting new preprints, so it is interesting to see how preprints in one specific scientific discipline are used differently by male and female authors. It would be great to expand such an analysis to different biological fields and demographics in the future.

Questions to authors

Is it possible that the higher Altmetrics score is associated with (male) authorship and the type of journal targeted for publication, or do you believe that this is specifically associated with preprinting prior to peer-review?

Your methodology focused specifically on preprints posted on bioRxiv. Why did you choose bioRxiv over medRxiv for oral science papers?

How important is the difference between first/last author and corresponding author representation? Did you consider looking into female vs male corresponding authors in these papers?

Have you considered a similar analysis across multiple countries? Preprints predominate from institutions in Western Europe and the US, but it would be intriguing to see if preprints are used differently by male and female researchers in countries with a lower preprint uptake.

References

(1) Rissler, L.J. et al. Gender differences in grant submissions across science and engineering fields at the NSF. BioScience. (2020)

(2) Huang et al. Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines. PNAS (2020)

(3) Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA, http://sfdora.org)

(4) Baerlocher et al. The meaning of author order in medical research Journal of Investigative Medicine. (2007)

(4) Shen, Y.A. et al. Persistent underrepresentation of women’s science in high profile journals. bioRxiv. (2018)

(5) Helmer, M. et al. Research: gender bias in scholarly peer review. eLife. (2017)

 

 

Posted on: 29th July 2021 , updated on: 10th August 2021

doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.30185

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Author's response

Lavanya shared

Is it possible that the higher Altmetrics score is associated with (male) authorship and the type of journal targeted for publication, or do you believe that this is specifically associated with preprinting prior to peer-review?

It’s difficult to say if there is an association between the gender and Altmetric score. There didn’t appear to be a significant difference found in our study. However, it could be that a certain gender is more active on social media, and this could in turn increase one’s score. It’d be interesting to investigate author level variables as related to Altmetrics.

Regarding Altmetric score and targeted journals, certain journals may receive more attention which could increase the Altmetric score of an article. However, in a study by Fu et al, which looked into increased Altmetric score of an article that was first in pre-print and was then published in a peer review journal, there was no association with journal related variables (impact factor, access model etc.).

Altmetric score is simply a measure of the amount of attention an article has received, so studies that are first published as preprints may merely have gained more recognition prior to being published in peer review.

Your methodology focused specifically on preprints posted on bioRxiv. Why did you choose bioRxiv over medRxiv for oral science papers?

The study idea was conceived in 2019 which is the year medRxiv was started. Since we were looking at the years 2018 and 2019 we decided to look into bioRxiv which had gained more popularity in the recent years with an increasing number of publications per year. This allowed for a greater sample size, which could not be achieved with medRxiv at the time. It would be great to conduct a future study focusing on medRxiv as well.

How important is the difference between first/last author and corresponding author representation? Did you consider looking into female vs male corresponding authors in these papers?

First and last author positions are the most notable in scientific research.  First authors have performed the majority of the work but likely to hold junior ranked positions, whereas the last author is the principal investigator and in a position of higher rank. The difference in gender in these two positions has been shown in previous studies with a greater number of women in first author than last author positions. Rationales for women being in more junior ranked positions is multifactorial and an important reason for investigating gender differences in first and last author representation.

Corresponding authors are important as well since they take on the responsibilities during the publication process and thereafter. The corresponding author generally tends to be the last author, but may also be the first author, or multiple authors may be given this role. Since there is overlap between first and last author and we wanted to exclude studies that had multiple authors that contributed equally to a given position, we decided not to include corresponding authors in our analysis.

Have you considered a similar analysis across multiple countries? Preprints predominate from institutions in Western Europe and the US, but it would be intriguing to see if preprints are used differently by male and female researchers in countries with a lower preprint uptake.

Yes, we have considered a similar analysis across various countries. Geographic location has been studied on a global scale in relation to the gender gap in various STEMM fields. Therefore, expanding the study to include other counties to see if pre-prints are prevalent among either gender would be a sensible next step.

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