Black and white photo of Rosalind Franklin looking into a microscope

New Evidence Supports the Rosalind Franklin Phenomenon

Jul 21, 2022

by Patricia Soochan

Feature image: Rosalind Franklin at MRC Lab, Cambridge, England, 1955 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosalind_Franklin.jpg)

We have long speculated on the reasons why women publish less than men do in science, and a slew of hypotheses has been proposed. Take, for example, the idea that gender differences in scholarly output are due to persistent gender roles in which women carry a disproportionate burden of family responsibilities and thus have less time for research and publication. Or, the fact that women historically have had less authoritative roles in the lab. Or, is the reason more complex? Is sexism also at play? A new paper in Nature (an accelerated article preview) attempts to answer these questions.

The article, “Women are Credited Less in Science than are Men,” calls out a major problem that could be referred to as the Rosalind Franklin phenomenon, for the English chemist who helped discover the molecular structure of DNA but who (unlike her Nobel Prize-winning male counterparts) was not recognized for her work. As the Nature article plainly puts it: “Women in research teams are significantly less likely to be credited with authorship than are men.”

What’s the Evidence?

In their research, Dr. Matthew B. Ross and his coauthors provide the first strong evidence to back up the long-held belief that women are not credited fairly in science publications. They examined three sources: (1) administrative data on 128,859 people working in 9,778 research teams, which they matched to 39,426 journal articles and 7,675 patents over a four-year period; (2) a survey of 2,446 scientists about the allocation of scholarly output credit; and (3) qualitative responses from scientists. Based on this robust data, the researchers discovered that: (1) women composed 35% of the authors on a team, although they accounted for 48% of team members, and this gender disparity was greater for high impact papers; (2) 43% of women and 38% of men reported that they had been excluded from authorship, and 49% of women and 39% of men reported greater underestimation of their contributions; and (3) the rules of attribution were often unclear and at the discretion of the senior investigator.

After examining these ample data sets, the authors concluded: “At least some of the observed gender gap in scientific output may not be due to differences in scientific contribution, but [rather] to differences in attribution.” So, sexism does seem to be a significant factor.

Based on figures by Ross, M. B. et al. Women are Credited Less in Science than are Men (accelerated article preview). Nature (2022).

What’s to Be Done?

The researchers criticize the process for allocating credit in scholarly publications as being opaque, due to a complex combination of multiple factors, including field, rank, culture, and gender. So, they suggest standardizing the way scholarly credit is given, which may make it more transparent and easier for those left out of authorship to make a case for their inclusion. Other solutions the authors suggested include requiring formal training for principal investigators in credit allocation and journals and granting agencies requiring author/research team contribution statements. The authors admit to many caveats in their interpretation of the data and encourage further exploration of their intriguing findings.

Patricia Soochan is a program officer and member of the multidisciplinary team at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2) initiative. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants to primarily undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She has served as a councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and the Nucleus. Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University. She has been an AWIS member since 2003.

Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.

This article originally appeared in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.