Mind the Gap

Scott McLemee evaluates international research -- and the resulting attention -- focused on the gender gap in the publication of articles in academic journals.

March 1, 2019

"Do women publish fewer journal articles than men?" This question was posed in an article published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education in 2011. The article focused on "sex differences in publication productivity in the social sciences," but plenty of studies have addressed the same question in other domains of scholarship. And a blanket answer is available: yes, on the whole, women tend to publish fewer journal articles than men.

The level of disparity varies between fields and seems to have narrowed over the decades. But the gender gap in research productivity remains a phenomenon sufficiently well established to have itself become a productive field of research in the U.S. and internationally.

Studies have been done in Brazil, Canada, Italy, Norway and South Korea, to list just the countries I've noticed of late while reading the literature. The British journal article that posed the question about articles authored by women was by Karen Schucan Bird, a research officer at the University College of London's Institute of Education. She analyzed 202 peer-reviewed articles by social scientists in the U.K. and determined that female scholars were publishing at rates "comparable with the proportion of the discipline that they constitute" in just two fields, social policy and psychology -- each with "high levels of women as scholars and students." (Indeed, the gender gap flipped in the case of social policy fields, where women made up 46 percent of authors but published 53 percent of the papers.)

Bird's findings for political science or economics were otherwise consistent "with studies in the material and life sciences" showing that women contributed disproportionately fewer papers than their male colleagues. Bird hypothesized that social policy and psychology might be disciplines "provid[ing] a space to challenge 'traditional' constructions of knowledge and gender-specific definitions of scientific 'quality'" as well as "ensur[ing] that teaching and administration roles are more equally distributed across women and men."

Bird concluded that further research was needed.

It always is. A study appeared in the journal Scientometrics late last year under the title "How does research productivity relate to gender? Analyzing gender differences for multiple publication dimensions." The authors, Sabrina J. Mayer and Justus M. K. Rathmann, share an affiliation with the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies in Berlin.

Something that caught my interest was that the authors implicitly accept Bird's characterization of psychology as a field with "high levels of women as scholars and students" as a kind of global starting point: "Nowadays in most countries," they write, "the majority of under- and postgraduate students are female." They prepared a data set on all full professors of psychology in Germany and their scholarly productivity in 2013 and '14. It covers 294 researchers distributed across 11 markedly distinct subdisciplines -- some overlapping with the natural sciences (neuropsychology and cognitive studies), some allied to the social sciences (labor, economic and social psychology), and others essentially medical (clinical and diagnostic psychology). Their output included 2,252 articles and 439 chapters.

Mayer and Rathmann fine-tuned the bibliometrics by also determining the portion of journal articles that appeared in journals with impact factors in the top 10 percent. Even with the population limited to full professors in psychology who already had tenure as of 2013, it sounds like a pretty robust data set. But it was also designed to factor out the influence of variations in teaching load (fixed by law for full professors) or "the external pressure to publish in order to obtain a tenured position." At the same time, limiting the pool to those with tenure revealed a much starker gender gap in the discipline than might appear from a broader view: just a little over a third of full professors were female.

As for Mayer's and Rathmann's picture of gender and research productivity … well, as with many relationships, it's complicated. The study found women publishing fewer journal articles than their male colleagues -- and also fewer articles in high-impact journals, though the gap there was smaller. Noting that "psychology is a social science discipline where publications in edited volumes still persist," Mayer and Rathmann found no significant gender difference in the publication of book chapters or contributions to collections of papers. But therein lies another problem -- such publications "are not listed in citation indices and often do not count for obtaining third-party funding and tenure." Are women submitting fewer journal articles than men, or having them rejected more often, or finding something of value in contributing to edited volumes despite the lower prestige it brings? The data set does not say, though it does bring the question into view.

An afterthought bears mentioning, given that, as I noted earlier, the issue of a gender gap in research has become a matter of international concern. Not much of the literature on the subject involves cross-cultural comparisons or general hypotheses. It tends to have a fairly tight focus, usually on a single country, with an emphasis on quantifiable elements such as impact factors. And in the case of the Scientometrics article, it's striking how matter-of-course the authors are about framing the gender gap in German full professors of psychology less as the product of well-entrenched systems of patriarchal domination than as a problem that administrators and authorities should direct resources to fixing.

There's a logic to their outlook, and it may be what drives international attention to the gender gap in this part of academe: a discipline, school or country that eliminates the drag on scholarly productivity of a big part of its human capital will have that much more advantage in the competition for prestige and funding.


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