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Academic writing

Is writing yet another gendered issue?

I read an article in 2020 about the fact that women scientists were publishing less than their male colleagues during the exceptional time that we were living through (1). I didn’t find this information surprising, indeed I remember complaining to a friend at the start of the first lockdown that there was gender bias in which parent would be the first port of call for problems with schoolwork or just dealing with boredom. So, another article confirming my personal experience and generally biased heteronormative views – great!

However, as part of an online group of people participating in and organising writing retreats, I know that many women are active in academic writing - most of the contributors to the group are women, and most attendees at writing retreats seem to be women too. This group was particularly active during the various lockdowns, and the activity has not waned. But maybe a writing retreat is early in the writing process? In addition, not all writing is destined for publication.

So I considered my own work. Most of the time the authors I work with wait until they have a version that is practically submission-ready before contacting me. I therefore took stock of the work that I received over the early months of 2020 and compared it to the work from the same period in 2019 and 2021. Between January and May 2019 I read or revised 13 articles for which the lead author was a woman, and 10 with a male lead author. In both 2020 and 2021 the split was tighter: out of 19 articles for each year, 9 named a woman as the lead author. Admittedly, these are pretty small samples from a particular cohort, and I would never attempt to stake a claim for statistical significance, but there is definitely plenty of WRITING involving women going on out there.

So, what is the analysis quoted in Nature saying? I took a closer look at what that data actually was, and realised that – far from relating to PUBLISHED articles, it referred to preprints. While preprints are certainly on the way to publication, and potentially available for citation, they are not there yet.

Looking at the analysis, I was shocked by the numbers: male authors on preprints outnumbered female authors by more than 100% (yes, that’s a two-fold increase) EVEN IN BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES, where women traditionally outnumber men. (The analysis took all the authors on a manuscript into account, which should have corrected for the fact that lab heads are disproportionately men.)

As I was attempting to recover my composure, I came across a newspaper article referring to the type of language that women use in their academic writing (2). According to this article, men use “boosterism” more in their writing – words like “novel”, “robust”, “promising”. That got me wondering whether there is a link between gender bias in preprints and language, and I think I might have finally got it:

You choose whether to upload your manuscript to a preprint server, sometimes it is proposed as part of submission to a journal, but you have to opt in.

If you are less likely to refer to your work as “ground-breaking” (other affirming adjectives are available), maybe you’re also less likely to let everyone know you’ve written an article before the results are validated by peer-review.

Maybe we should try not to jump to conclusions and wait to see the accepted publications!





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