The Nature Group, Once Again, Commits to Misogyny in the Scientific Literature

There are some things in this world that never cease to amaze me. For example, how much I am enjoying this video today. A friend sent it to me. I never would have picked it myself, but now I’ve watched it 100 times. You’re welcome.

The other thing that never ceases to amaze me is how, even after more than a decade of them showing their entire asses by publishing misogyny and other inflammatory material, the Nature Research Journals can still do anything that makes my blood absolutely boil.

It’s already hard enough to be a woman in science. We don’t need Nature to make it worse. Yet, they seem so deeply committed to that mission. Go back and watch the space frogs video at any time while reading this post if you feel your blood pressure rising.

Nature Communications published a paper yesterday titled “The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance“. Seems like a pretty benign title, until you realize that the real question the authors sought to address is not about mentorship, per se, but about the impact of publishing with male or female mentors and whether those early publication experiences impact a mentee’s publications and citations in the future.

Now, one can take two approaches to questions like these. One can simply present the data, or one can wrap the data in a disgusting agenda aimed at diminishing and belittling the contributions of female mentors. It became apparent to me that these authors were choosing the latter when I read the last sentences of the abstract:

While current diversity policies encourage same-gender mentorships to retain women in academia, our findings raise the possibility that opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who pursue a scientific career. These findings add a new perspective to the policy debate on how to best elevate the status of women in science.

These findings do not add a new perspective. They reinforce a perspective that so many of us have fought our entire careers to challenge – that the best path to success is by working with a big name, white male faculty member, despite the well-recognized impact it has on retaining women in science. This perspective is reinforced with mediocre science, which is always the best sort of science for reinforcing discriminatory agendas. It’s interesting that even the peer reviewers didn’t seem to like it and, yet, Nature Communications ran with it.

Let’s walk through all of the ways this paper absolutely sucks. Gosh, it sucks. It sucks really, really hard.

It uses a problematic data set that has not been externally validated for “gender” identity.

The authors used publicly available publication data to identify >200 million publications from 3 million mentor-mentee pairs. The source data are freely available but it’s not clear who the authors are. The authors claim they used to identify the gender of the author. It appears that this app assigns a gender based on the first name. I tried it by entering the names of 55 recent co-authors, whose gender identity and preferred pronouns I know, into a google sheet and using the API tool. mis-gendered 12% of them. It likely will not shock you that the names that were mis-gendered are more likely to be from non-American scientists. I added a few more from colleagues whose name I could identify on a unisex baby name list and it failed 50% of the time but still reported a probability of being correct >80%. So, out of a total sample of 73 names, it failed 21% of the time and the incorrect response was more likely to be “male.” It’s not clear to me how these authors validated that assigned genders were correct. This is a huge potential source of error and important when we start thinking effect sizes which are <10%.

Further, I’d argue that any study of gender that does not consider non-binary gender, trans-gender, etc. is bullshit en face.

The survey of mentor-mentee relationships is potentially biased, does not support a role for senior author mentoring, and does not evaluate gender differences

The authors state that they randomly sampled 2,000 individuals from their data sets to survey their mentoring relationships and received responses from 167, or 0.006% of the dataset. Who is the most likely to respond to these? The individuals that stayed in science. Do you know who is most likely to stay in science? Of course, you do. We don’t know the gender frequency of who they published with. Are women more likely to publish with women or men among the respondents? Biases may be reinforced or offset if one gender is more likely to respond to a survey. We don’t know if there are biases here because the data aren’t clearly reported. I got bored digging and took a pause in my writing to make some sourdough.

Maybe I should have started writing a manuscript so that I don’t hurt my trainees in the future. Back to business….

There are no data reported about these 167 respondents, who they see their mentors are, and the data are not broken down according to the subject of the paper – by gender. Even then, the data show that only about half of the respondents believe they received any substantial mentoring from senior authors on their papers (see Figure 1C). This is hugely problematic for a paper whose central claim is about mentorship relationships and I have a hypothesis about the genders of 1) the people who responded they felt mentored and 2) the people doing the mentoring. We’ve now got several potential sources of bias in the interpretation of “mentorship” that, compounded with the potentially large error rate in gendering the individuals in the data set, makes these data and the authors’ conclusions increasingly problematic.

It uses a particular publication citation criteria as the lone index of success.

I don’t need to be-labor this. The index of impact is defined as:

The impact of each such paper is calculated as the number of citations that it accumulated 5 years post-publication, denoted by c515; this is the measure of scientific impact that will be used throughout the article. Such an outcome measure allows us to assess the quality of the scholar that the protégé has become after the mentorship period has concluded.

This is influenced by where you’re publishing, the age of discipline, the methods used in the discipline, and the type of work you’re publishing. To say that it reflects the “quality of the scholar” is laughable. It reflects only the thing that defines it – the number of times a paper is cited across a 5 year period. It’s not a secret that men are cited more than women. It’s not a secret that there are factors that keep women from publishing (cough, COVID, cough). The quality of a scholar branches beyond a 5 year publication period. Teaching, grants, talks, translation to practice, and impact on people. I would never have stayed in science were it not for my female mentors who demonstrated a quality and creativity of scholarship that extended beyond this lone index. To distill quality down to a single metric and diminish this important role of women mentors feels like a knife in the heart.

It does not surprise me that Nature Communications would find a paper based essentially on impact factor to be appealing, but this is simply offensive.

It does not use a case control design

The population of men and women mentors are different. Women are less likely to be full professors, more likely to be impacted by child rearing, more likely to leak from the pipeline, and are more highly burdened with service activities. The control for being female is not being male. If one were actually to entertain such a foolish question, one might consider case control matching male and female mentors of the same H-index, age, family status, professional rank, and outcomes. The authors claim that they have evaluated “equally-impactful females”. I not only despise being called “a female”, but the authors’ implication that they could have quantified anything beyond university and publication citation index from their data set, as well.

The conclusions are bullshit, while already perched atop a problematic data set.

Remember, the authors aim to quantify mentorship here, without actually doing it.

While it has been shown that having female mentors increases the likelihood of female protégés staying in academia10 and provides them with better career outcomes39, such studies often compare protégés that have a female mentor to those who do not have a mentor at all, rather than to those who have a male mentor. Our study fills this gap, and suggests that female protégés who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females. 

Other studies of women mentors have truly quantified mentorship. This is not what their study shows. The study shows that publishing with a man is beneficial and that the least citations arise when two women publish together as end authors. No fucking shit. To so easily write off the role of women in keeping women (and probably non-women) in science disgusts me. This section implies that the women who would have remained despite being in problematic environments are the real focus and that the ones that were retained because of the hard work of women mentors are worth less. And to imply that anyone is mentored by *only* women? It’s bananas. There simply aren’t enough of us. I guarantee, dollars to donuts, that if you ask any woman scientist to name her formal and informal mentors, there are men on the list. The authors fail to admit that their flawed design and dataset may have diluted away the contributions of hard-working women in science.

The authors’ conclusions are the most dangerous. They write:

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. Female scientists, in fact, may benefit from opposite-gender mentorships in terms of their publication potential and impact throughout their post-mentorship careers. 

Indeed, the way to solve the problems of gender inequity in science is to have women be mentored by men so that they can be more successful. Except, riddle me this? What happens when you become a senior scientist? Where do your trainees come from, if being mentored by you is harmful to their careers?

My verdict? I had really hoped that Nature would eventually get its shit together.

Today is clearly not that day.

Isis the Scientist

Professor, physiologist, mother of the iKids, stepmom to the Strange Tots, Strange’s wife, Iowan, bikes, shoes, debt-free zealot, post-stomach. Old crone of a blogger who just never learns. Not even close to affiliated with my employer.

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  1. 167/2000? That’s beyond an abysmal return rate. Like how do you even get valid data with that. I wish I could say I was surprised Nature published this crap.. But anything that makes the ever powerful impact factor seem important…..

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