Nature Communications blasted for paper knocking female mentors

Scientists ask why major journal published findings that female mentors may be bad for your career, even after reviewers pointed out flaws in the paper’s methodology

十一月 23, 2020
Two female scientists
Source: iStock

A new paper in Nature Communications concludes that informal female mentorship in academic collaborations is, by certain measures, bad for scientists. The journal is now reviewing how and why the paper got published. 

Some have accused the paper’s many critics of being afraid of uncomfortable findings. Those critics find that allegation risible, pointing to what they describe as serious methodological and analytical problems within the paper itself − many of which reviewers flagged prior to publication.

“Let me blunt: For the good of the global scientific community and for the reputation of Nature Communications, you must retract this paper,” Leslie B. Vosshall, investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Robin Chemers Neustein Professor at Rockefeller University, wrote to the journal last week. “The general consensus among hundreds of colleagues who have read and commented on this paper in large group email threads and on Twitter is that it is deeply methodologically flawed and with the potential to inflict serious harm on the global scientific community.”

Professor Vosshall added: “I find it deeply discouraging that this message − avoid a female mentor or your career will suffer − is being amplified by your journal.”

In response to Professor Vosshall’s message and others like it, the journal quickly added an editor’s note to the paper saying: “Readers are alerted that this paper is subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors.”

On social media, the journal thanked “those who’ve contacted us about this issue”, adding that it “strongly believes in and supports equality and diversity in research”.

The paper’s authors say that they welcome the journal’s review and suggest that some of their conclusions have been misinterpreted.

Bedoor AlShebli, assistant professor of computational social science at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus and lead author of the paper, said that the study, supplementary materials and public review document already address some of the questions raised.

She forwarded a statement that she co-authored with her colleagues, Kinga Makovi and Talal Rahwan, saying: “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 maximising women’s long-term impact in the academy.”

Quoting their paper, Dr AlShebli and her co-authors said that “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”.

As for the journal’s investigation, the authors “believe that free inquiry and debate are engines of science and welcome the review”, which “will lead to a thorough and rigorous discussion of the work and its complex implications”.

Some scientists found the response to the paper chilling to controversial research. One tweeted: “We are allowing Twitter mobs to force journals to review already peer-reviewed and accepted scientific papers because they hate the results.” This will “inevitably lead to the complete distrust of our scientific institutions”, they added.

Tania A. Reynolds, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, wrote on Twitter: “Many people are calling to have this paper retracted, but these findings are quite in line with extant work on female-female competition,” including the “queen bee” phenomenon. “If there is something undermining female-female mentorship,” she said, “we should investigate why.”

Dr Reynolds said that if she worked for Nature Communications, she’d request that scientists publish critiques of the paper and “save retractions for cases when there are data fraud issues or coding errors rendering the results invalid”.

Not all critics want the paper retracted, but they are united in asking how it passed peer review. They cite the paper’s peer-review file, in which reviewers asked many of the same questions being posed now.

Anonymous Reviewer No. 1 wrote, for instance, that mentorship is an understudied aspect of research but that the paper “contains a number of major shortcomings”. The reviewer said the database is known to have “many problems with author disambiguation and tracking of citations”, and that the authors “use co-authorship as synonymous of mentorship, which is not well justified as there are many more reasons to be a co-author than to be a mentor”.

The conclusion that ”gender homophily in mentor-mentee relationships has negative effects for females ignores the historical aspects of this relationship”, the reviewer said, “as men have enjoyed significant advantages and access to resources for their mentees”. There are “societal aspects in the data that cannot be ignored no matter how clever the matching method is for doing causal inference on observational data”.

The file-drawer effect, in which “positive” and even flashy findings that support a hypothesis are more likely to be published than “negative” ones, is well known. And few studies have unimpeachable methodologies and interpretations. But the outstanding criticism of this paper is that the authors made major leaps between arguably shaky data and their conclusions on a topic of serious importance − and that Nature Communications gave them a microphone.

Perhaps the debate about this incident will involve questions over whether scrutiny of research prior to publication should increase with its real-world implications.

Lara Mahal, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Glycomics at the University of Alberta, said: “I don’t think people realise how much this can affect women’s careers. If ambitious students and postdoctoral fellows are told that working for women is going to prevent their careers from taking off, it has an impact. That can harm careers from the get-go.”

That said, she doesn’t want the paper to be retracted, “because that just sweeps this under the rug and allows it to hide in the shadows”. Instead, she said, the editors at Nature Communications need to append an analysis of this paper to it, so that when it’s distributed “the flaws in the logic and the awfulness of it is made clearly visible”.

“We already knew there was a citation bias against women, and this article simply doubles down on that − using it as a reason to undermine women as mentors rather than a real issue of the system,” she said.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.



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