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PLOS Biology meta-research article finds female scientists collaborate differently and face an uneven STEM playing field; a Primer places these findings in context

In a much-discussed PLOS Biology meta-research article published on Friday (11/4/16), Differences in Collaboration Patterns across Discipline, Career Stage, and Gender, researchers from Northwestern University analyzed collaboration patterns of nearly 4,000 US faculty (who’ve collectively written 420,000 papers) to determine how experiences of STEM female and male faculty vary.

Several of the authors’ findings attempt to parse certain ‘chicken and egg’ questions raised by the data. For example, how much of the noted tendency for female scientists to form novel research collaborations can be attributed to their more limited opportunities (to find collaborators, funding, etc.) and how much might be due to their propensity (as female scientists) to be more open to collaboration?

Among the researchers’ salient findings on these points:

  • Our present analysis conclusively shows that females do have fewer distinct co-authors over their careers, but that this gap can be accounted for by differences in number of publications.
  • We also find evidence for the hypothesis that female scientists are more open to novel collaborations than their male counterparts, a behavior that was shown to correlate with producing work of greater impact.
  • Concerning our finding that females appear to be more likely to engage new collaborators, it could be that females are simply more effective collaborators and are able to make the most of their lower representation in STEM disciplines.

“Our findings in molecular biology, particularly genomics, are what surprised us the most,” said Luís Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. “There is a lot of research money in this high-profile area, and women are not represented proportionally. This raises all sorts of questions as to what kind of cultural environment has been created in the field.”

“Much more progress needs to be made for underrepresented groups to feel welcomed in STEM disciplines,” Amaral continued. “In fact, the degree of progress is not even uniform within a single discipline, so one needs to make sure females are not being excluded from specific subdisciplines.” 

[This study represents a new type of PLOS research article “Meta-Research Article,” focusing on the scientific study of research practices, and a new cross-PLOS collection, both inaugurated in January 2016; see the PLOS Meta-Research Collection]

 In an accompanying Primer to the Northwestern research article, “Rosalind’s Ghost: Biology, Collaboration, and the Female,” also publishing 4 November, Caroline Wagner, of Ohio State University, Columbus, who was not involved in the study, sets this work in context. “One factor remains fairly constant: women are underrepresented in terms of authorships, including first and/or last authorships (whichever is more prestigious), coauthorships, and in the granting of scientific prizes,” she writes.

“Overall, the more elite the scientist, the more likely they are to work at the international level; however, female collaborators are less likely to be working internationally and are more likely to collaborate locally. This means that they are also less likely to coauthor with top scholars.”

 Wagner notes that previous studies and the new findings from Amaral’s group serve to remind us that the legacy of Rosalind Franklin, whose crucial work on the structure of the DNA double helix over 60 years ago was notoriously underappreciated at the time, lives on.

 An interesting aspect of the editorial process for these articles noted by a PLOS Biology editor  concerned the accompanying visuals.

“One of the reviewers pointed out that in this paper, of all papers, the authors shouldn’t adhere to the tired old stereotype of blue-for-boys, pink-for-girls that they used in the graphs for the original submission,” commented Senior Editor Roli Roberts. “They re-coloured purple-for-boys, orange-for-girls at revision, which is the colour scheme that I used when I designed the featured image.”

Available now on PLOS Biology:

Zeng XHT, Duch J, Sales-Pardo M, Moreira JAG, Radicchi F, Ribeiro HV, et al. (2016) Differences in Collaboration Patterns across Discipline, Career Stage, and Gender. PLoS Biol 14(11): e1002573. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002573 Meta-Research Article (MRA):

Wagner, Caroline (2016) Rosalind’s Ghost: Biology, Collaboration, and the Female. Ohio State University, Columbus. Primer:


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