News & Analysis Physics World  October 2021

Women are more likely to experience author disputes

Naming fights A new survey has found that female scientists are 1.5 times more likely than men to suffer from author disputes when it comes to writing papers. (Courtesy: iStock/LukaTDB)

Female academics are more likely to have authorship disagreements when publishing their research than their male colleagues. That is according to a global survey of more than 5000 scientists, which finds that women often feel they receive less recognition than they deserve, while men report the opposite (Sci. Adv. 7 eabe4639).

Almost half of the respondents to the survey – conducted by researchers led by Cassidy Sugimoto, an information scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology – were from the natural sciences and engineering (which included physics). About a third, meanwhile, were biomedical scientists and a fifth came from the social sciences. 

They found that just over half of respondents (53.2%) have had a disagreement over who to list as authors on a paper as well as the order in which those names appear. Women, however, were 1.38 times more likely than men to have experienced a naming disagreement and 1.25 times more likely to have had a dispute about author order. Natural sciences and engineering had the lowest proportion of female researchers but the largest difference in disputes, with women 1.5 times more likely than men to report a naming disagreement. 

Authorship disputes are often rooted in perceptions of whether contributions have been recognized fairly. Female respondents were more likely to state that they distributed authorship fairly and that their colleagues were unfair in their practices. When asked about which authors – first, last or all – receive the most recognition, women were also more likely to report a gap between who is recognized and who should be. This, the authors write, suggests dissatisfaction with the current status quo. “Disagreements may be more prevalent for women because they perceive the system as not recognizing those it should,” they say.

Limiting further collaboration was said to be the most common outcome of authorship disputes for both men and women. There were differences, however, in behaviour following disagreements. Women were more likely to have observed hostility while men were more likely to produce fraudulent research “to compete with or undermine the results of a colleague”. In natural sciences and engineering, men were twice as likely to undermine colleagues’ work during meetings or talks as payback for such disputes.

Highlighting the importance of communication, respondents who said they discussed authorship issues during collaborative work had fewer disagreements. But the researchers found that men have a more “authoritarian” style when deciding authorship. Women were more likely to discuss authorship with co-authors at the beginning of the project while men were more likely to do so once a manuscript is ready to submit and to decide on authorship without team consultation.

According to Sugimoto and colleagues, the often “implicit and idiosyncratic” social norms of science disadvantage those who are not part of the dominant social group. “Opaque authorship has understated gender inequities and consequently created a space where they can increase unchecked,” they write. “Transparency in authorship is essential for achieving equity in scholarly communication.” 

Michael Allen