Research networks ‘more important’ for female scientists

Study finds a stronger correlation for women between success and being central to a network 

February 16, 2017
A black female scientist working in a lab
Source: iStock

Being well connected is more important for women who want to get ahead in science than men, a study suggests.

By analysing how patterns of research collaboration relate to scientific outcomes, US statisticians found that highly cited female scientists at top US universities tended to be very prominent within their research networks.

However, the same was not true for highly cited male scientists, who are generally less central to the larger academic networks they participated in, according to the paper by Charisse Madlock-Brown, from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, and David Eichmann, from the University of Iowa. The article, “The Scientometrics of Successful Women in Science”, was published recently online by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

As part of the paper, which is based on a presentation at the International Conference on Advances in Social Networks Analysis and Mining, a joint event of the IEEE and the Association for Computing Machinery held in August 2016, Dr Madlock-Brown and Dr Eichmann examine the publication record and construct the “h-index” scores of all scientists at 17 US medical research institutes, which allows them to assess the “impact” or citation record of a scholar.

The analysis, which covers about 30,000 medics at institutions such as Harvard University, Northwestern University and Duke University, finds that men are generally more central to their academic networks – “indicating [they] have shorter paths to potential collaborators” – than women.

This higher “centrality” is strongly correlated with research productivity, meaning that men are more likely to publish more than women, the paper states.

However, those female scientists with a strong h-index score generally have a very high centrality score, with the “correlation between h-index and [network] centrality…almost twice as high for women as it is for men”, it adds.

“Being well connected is more highly correlated with success for women than men for most of the institutions we studied,” it concludes.

This effect is probably explained by the fact that top female scientists tend to work in smaller research groups than men and must, in essence, be the “big fish in the small pond” to get noticed by other investigators and their institution, the paper says.

“Men with more collaborators may gain benefit from having access to more high-profile co-authors,” the researchers say, adding that the “bigger their network the greater the chances that they will cross paths with such investigators”.

Such effects may help to explain why so few women are reaching the top of university medical departments, despite “women…entering medicals schools in high rates for years”, states the paper.

Only 12 per cent of medical department heads and 17 per cent of professors are women, although they make up about 50 per cent of medical students, it says.

“A dependence on a small group of people may keep young female investigators from conducting impactful research and getting tenure,” the authors state.

“Success rates for women could be improved by encouraging women to collaborate more effectively by being aware of their reach within their institutions’ research network,” they conclude.

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