Female Scientist Or Scholar? You Might Want To Hide Your Name Behind An Initial

 @rpalmerscience on October 09 2013 4:26 PM

The First Commandment of academia is “publish or perish.” But a corollary to this commandment would be “publish papers that other people cite.” The more that other scientists and scholars are turning to your work, the higher your prestige. And women researchers in particular have struggled to accrue the professional kudos that can be key to tenure and academic success.

Some people have argued that women make bad choices when it comes to conventional career success: They pick teaching over research, don’t engage in popular research topics, or take time off in the middle of their careers to have children. But University of California San Diego researcher Barbara Walter and colleagues have found evidence of a systemic bias against female researchers among their colleagues.

Walter and her team examined more than 3,000 articles published in 12 top international relations journals between 1980 and 2006. In their analysis, they tried to control for all external factors except gender – to see how articles of equal caliber, on equally popular topics, by professors from equally elite universities, might be received.

“Even when we controlled for an enormous range of factors, gender remained one of the best predictors of how often an article would be cited,” Walter wrote in the Washington Post last week. “If you were female, your article would get about 0.7 cites for every 1 cite that a male author would receive.”

Some scholars have suggested that women academics can help shore up their citation numbers by citing their previous works in their papers (a totally acceptable practice). But Walter suggests that one of the easiest ways to remedy the gender gap in citation would be to make it common practice to publish studies using only an author’s last name and first initial.

“What if the norm for scholars were to identify themselves only with their first initial and last name when submitting an article for review and publication?” Walter wrote. “This would make it more likely that initial impressions about the quality of scholarship would be based on the work itself and not the author’s gender.”

Veronique Kiermer, executive editor of the journal Nature, says that the publication can accommodate an author's preference for initials throughout the submission or publication stages of a manuscript.

"Though this is unusual, as it probably also makes it more difficult to assign credit," Kiermer wrote in an email.

Kiermer also noted that some of Nature's subsidiary journals -- Nature Geoscience and Nature Climate Change -- have had the option of double-blind peer review since June 2013. The peer review process generally conceals the names of reviewers from the researcher whose paper is being scrutinized, but only in double-blind peer review is the author's identity hidden from the reviewers.

Double-blind peer review could achieve "a similar aim as the suggested use of initials during peer review, while giving full credit at the time of publication.," Kiermer says.

Hiding gender has been shown to improve gender parity in other fields. Walter points to work showing that the representation of women in American and European symphony orchestras significantly increased once companies started using blind auditions, where a musician is hidden from judges by a screen. A study led by Princeton University Economist Cecilia Rouse and published in the American Economic Review [PDF] found that blind auditions increased a woman’s likelihood of advancing from preliminary rounds of orchestra auditions increased by 50 percent.

But waiting until you’re submitting papers to journals might be a bit late in the game to start hiding your gender for many discouraged women scientists. Even at the very early stages of a career in science, a so-called girlish name can work against you.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2012, Yale University researchers sent to a pool of 127 university science professors one of 127 identical applications for a lab manager position. Half the scientists got an application with a male name, and the other half got an application with a female name. In general, the scientists were more likely to rate the male applicant as more competent than the identically qualified female applicant, were more likely to hire him, and were more likely to offer a higher starting salary and more mentoring resources than to the imaginary female student.

Cloaking a feminine name in mysterious initials or adopting a male pseudonym is a long-standing tradition in fiction. English novelist Mary Anne Evans took the pen name George Eliot; the Bronte sisters published a book of poetry as the “Bell brothers.”

And back in the 1990s, British author Joanne Rowling and her publisher thought that little boys would be less keen to read a story – even one about boy wizards -- written by a woman. For that reason, most people know the author of the “Harry Potter” series as J.K. Rowling. Thriller writer Joanna Penn came to the same conclusion in 2012. On her blog, she explained that she would adopt the moniker J.F. Penn for her works of action and adventure, a genre dominated by male authors.

“I don’t know whether there are more male readers in this category,” Penn wrote. “I certainly buy these authors, but I don’t think women readers are that hung up on the gender of the author. But apparently men are, and they are less likely to buy from a female name.”

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