After scalding critiques of study on gender and mentorship, journal says it is reviewing the work

Robert Neubecker

A massive study of mentoring, gender, and career outcomes released by Nature Communications has ignited a firestorm of criticism for its conclusions, which have been labeled as sexist by many scientists on social media. The study is a “black eye” for the popular open-access title, one bioengineer tweeted, adding that she will no longer review papers for the journal.

In response to the uproar, the journal’s editorial team announced Thursday it is reviewing the study, which concludes that mentorship by women can damage the careers of female students and early-career scientists; it recommends encouraging male mentors for women instead.

The study, published on 17 November by a trio of researchers at New York University, Abu Dhabi, used a data set of more than 200 million scientific papers published over the course of more than 100 years to identify several million mentor-mentee pairs. It then followed the career achievements of the mentees, based on citations to papers they authored during their first 7 years as “senior scientists”—determined here only by the time since a researcher’s first publication.

They found that early-career scientists who co-wrote papers with what the authors call “big-shot” researchers—defined by their yearly citation rate—went on themselves to have citation rates that were higher than average. More controversial, they report that, overall, the more female mentors an early-career scientist had, the lower the impact of the papers they published when they became senior scientists. They found that the effect on impact, which was measured by citation rates, was particularly strong for female mentees. They also noted that female mentors of women “suffer on average a loss of 18% in citations on their mentored papers.”

“Our gender-related findings suggest that current diversity policies promoting female-female mentorships, as well-intended as they may be, could hinder the careers of women who remain in academia in unexpected ways,” the paper’s discussion section concludes. “Female scientists, in fact, may benefit from opposite-gender mentorships in terms of their publication potential and impact throughout their post-mentorship careers.”

That conclusion, and the methods used to reach it, have drawn scalding criticism. On social media, many researchers asserted the data set was misused, arguing that mentorship relationships and senior standing were poorly defined, and that citation rate alone is not an adequate measure of a blossoming scientist’s success. And many pointed out that, even if the findings were valid, there was no justification to jump to discouraging female-female mentorships, especially because the paper gave little consideration to institutionalized biases that might account for the data. All the study accomplished, critics say, is to find evidence of systemic sexism. And it proposed more sexism as a solution, they added, by encouraging female researchers to avoid working with other women. Hundreds of researchers from across the spectrum of scientific disciplines have demanded the paper’s reconsideration and sought to form teams to draft rebuttals.

“The conclusions … are based on flawed assumptions and flawed analysis,” wrote Rockefeller University neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall in an open letter to Nature Communications calling for the paper’s retraction. “I find it deeply discouraging that this message—avoid a female mentor or your career will suffer—is being amplified by your journal.”

Central to the criticism was how the researchers defined mentorship. The authors assigned mentor-mentee pairs based on co-authorships—a connection, many critics pointed out, that might occur with the two researchers having little to no interaction at all. Other criticism focused on how the authors defined seniority; scientists were considered junior for the first 7 years after their first paper was published, and senior in the next 7 years, a distinction many researchers called arbitrary. Commenters were also pained by the use of citations during this period as the only measure of researcher success.

In response, tweets from scientists of all genders thanked their female mentors for supporting them through particular challenges, creating a harassment-free space, or keeping them in science despite tough times. “Using this [paper] as a reminder to acknowledge a few of my brilliant official and unofficial mentors,” tweeted Andrea Fields, a psychology Ph.D. student at Columbia University. “I am confident that I would have 0 publications and 0 shot at an academic career without them.”

Coral biologist Sarah Davies of Boston University has collected more than 1000 such testimonies in a Google spreadsheet she and her collaborators created in response to the paper.

Davies, who recently co-authored a preprint suggesting strategies to support academic female scientists during the pandemic, points out that citation rates are known to be skewed in favor of men. Recent studies have suggested men cite themselves more than women do and that scholars rate papers as being of higher quality when they think they are authored by men. Researchers are also more likely to cite papers and authors that come to mind easily, regardless of quality. That leaves a lot of room for implicit gender biases to play a role, she says. And the Nature Communications study flies in the face of other recent research suggesting female role models can be important for keeping women in science.

Davies is concerned, too, about the study’s use of first names to determine gender, an approach she feels could lead to inaccuracies, but also leaves no room to acknowledge gender nonbinary researchers. “Treating gender itself as binary is also damaging in today’s climate,” she says.

The study authors declined an interview with ScienceInsider citing child care responsibilities, but defended their work in an emailed statement:

In our paper, we highlight that the elevation of women in science depends on the achievement of at least two objectives: retaining women in scientific careers—for which female mentors are indispensable, as explicitly mentioned in our paper—and maximizing women’s long-term impact in the academy. As we conclude: ‘the goal of gender equity in science, regardless of the objective targeted, cannot, and should not be shouldered by senior female scientists alone, rather, it should be embraced by the scientific community as a whole.’ We believe that free inquiry and debate are engines of science, and welcome the review launched by the Editor in Chief of Nature Communications, which we think will lead to a thorough and rigorous discussion of the work and its complex implications.

Such a review is necessary, says Joshua Miller, a postdoctoral scholar in conservation genomics at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, whose Twitter takedown of the paper garnered more than 3500 likes and thousands of retweets. Adding to his frustration, he says, is the fact that “a lot of these concerns raised by me and others on Twitter were raised by peer reviewers,” whose comments were made available along with the publication.

“I think that a dialogue in Nature Communications is definitely warranted,” Miller says. “Highlighting all that we know about equity, diversity and inclusion seems at least the bare minimum.”