Nature Communications retracts criticised paper on female mentors

Authors express ‘deep regret’ after independent review finds conclusions of research are not supported  

December 21, 2020
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The authors of a research paper that was widely criticised for concluding that informal female mentorship could be bad for scholars’ careers have retracted the article following an investigation, while the journal has introduced new guidelines for social science studies.

The study, “The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance”, published in Nature Communications in November, claimed that women in science fare better with male rather than female mentors. Co-authorship was used as a measure of mentorship and citations as a measure of success of the mentoring relationship.

The authors – three academics from New York University Abu Dhabi – said in a statement published on 21 December that they were retracting the article, following a review by three independent experts.

The experts questioned the use of co-authorship as a measure of mentorship, noting that “any conclusions that might be drawn on biases in citations in the context of co-authorship cannot be extended to informal academic mentorship”.

The authors said they “feel deep regret that the publication of our research has both caused pain on an individual level and triggered such a profound response among many in the scientific community”.

“Many women have personally been extremely influential in our own careers, and we express our steadfast solidarity with and support of the countless women who have been a driving force in scientific advancement. We hope the academic debate continues on how to achieve true equity in science – a debate that thrives on robust and vivid scientific exchange,” they said.

In an editorialNature Communications said the conclusions of the research “turned out not to be supported, and we apologise to the research community for any unintended harm derived from the publication of this paper”.

The journal added that it had developed additional internal guidelines and updated information for authors on how it approaches human behaviour and social science studies.

“As part of these guidelines, we recognise that it is essential to ensure that such studies are considered from multiple perspectives including from groups concerned by the findings,” it said.

“We believe that this will help us ensure that the review process takes into account the dimension of potential harm, and that claims are moderated by a consideration of limitations when conclusions have potential policy implications.”

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