Diversity concerns as biomedical papers ‘ignore sex as variable’

Papers with females as senior authors significantly more likely to take account of sex

February 9, 2019
male and female ducks
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Two-thirds of biomedical papers fail to include vital information about the sex of their test subjects within experiments, according to new research highlighting the underrepresentation of women, both within medical studies, and working in medical sciences.

Analysing more than 11.5 million papers indexed in the online repositories Web of Science and PubMed between 1980 and 2016, researchers from the universities of Indiana, Montreal and Quebec were able to evaluate the extent to which scarcity of women in science could correlate with the lack of inclusion of sex within scientific reporting.

Their resulting paper, “Factors affecting sex-related reporting in medical research: a cross-disciplinary bibliometric analysis”, suggests that scientific studies with women as a first- and last-named author are significantly more likely to include the reporting of sex within their write-ups.

While sex-related reporting increased from 59 per cent to 67 per cent in clinical medicine and from 36 to 69 per cent in public health research within the sample timeframe, sex remained largely absent within biomedical research reporting, featuring in less than a third (31 per cent) of papers by 2016.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Vincent Laviere, associate professor of information science at the University of Montreal and co-author of the paper, explained that this absence was not for lack of females in science, but rather because “sex reporting becomes more and more frequently ignored the further the study subjects move away from humans”.

That female-led papers were more likely to report sex-related variables offered a clear incentive for institutions to improve gender diversity within senior roles, he added.

“Diversification in the scientific workforce and in the research populations…is essential to produce the most rigorous and effective medical research,” the study concludes.

The findings were published in a special edition of The Lancet medical sciences journal focusing specifically on women in science, in which experts call for greater focus on biological sex reporting within science.

Previous studies have shown the importance of reporting the biological sex of animals and humans used within scientific experiments, showing evidence that sex-based differences can have a major impact on results, for instance within drugs testing.

A growing number of institutes are clocking on to the importance of sex reporting in science; in 2014 the US National Institutes of Health introduced a requirement for research applications to take sex into consideration as a biological variable in order to qualify for public funding.

More recently, The Lancet has adopted editorial guidelines requiring “sophisticated sex and gender analysis” when selecting papers for publication.


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