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Male Scientists Praise Their Own Research More

According to a study co-authored by Yale SOM’s Olav Sorenson, male scientists are more likely than their women colleagues to use words like “novel,” “excellent,” and “unique” to describe their own work in the titles and abstracts of research articles. In a New York Times commentary, he and his co-authors write that this framing appears to lead to more citations and could contribute to gender disparities in hiring, promotion, pay, and funding.

A male scientist putting an "excellent" ribbon on himself
Sean David Williams

This commentary originally appeared in the New York Times.

Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at the highest levels. Only one out of four full professors at American research institutions is a woman, despite the fact that equal numbers of men and women earn doctoral degrees in science each year. In the life sciences, women are less likely either to receive major grant funding or to be promoted to full professor—and they are paid less even when they produce the same amount of scholarly output as men.

We’ve identified another, much less discussed component of gender disparity in science: Men are much more likely than women to heap praise on their own research and emphasize its importance.

In a study published in the British Medical Journal, we analyzed the titles and abstracts of more than six million life science articles. We suspected that scientific teams led by men might frame their research findings in more flattering light, by using terms like “novel,” “excellent,” and “unique” to describe their results.

Indeed, they do. In the most highly cited scientific journals, male-led scientific teams were up to 21 percent more likely than women-led teams publishing comparable studies to use positive adjectives to frame their research findings.

Read the study: “Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study”

That matters. Scientists use titles and abstracts to screen articles, to decide what to read. Positive presentation of research findings by male scientists may then draw more attention from others in the scientific community. Sure enough, we found that the greater use of positive spin by male-led teams was linked to more citations.

Since citations to scientific research often serve as a key metric in hiring, promotion, pay, and funding decisions, these differences in self-promotion may also translate into gender disparities on many levels.

Our analysis accounted for several factors that might reasonably justify the positive framing of research findings by male scientists. For example, if male scientists disproportionately did research in newer scientific areas, the greater use of positive terms to describe their research might make sense.

But we found no evidence that male scientists’ more frequent use of spin stemmed from their science being more novel or innovative.

It’s well recognized that men and women use language differently. Some studies in the general population suggest that men use more assertive language and women more tentative language when communicating.

Studies in the sciences have reached similar conclusions. A textual analysis of approximately 7,000 research grant proposals to the Gates Foundation found that despite grant reviewers not knowing the identity of the applicant, women received lower application scores. The gap could be explained entirely by the gender differences in how applicants framed their research.

There are still unanswered questions: Do women choose to refrain from presenting their research more positively, or are they held to different standards by reviewers and editors who govern the scientific peer review process? Our research, of course, cannot determine the best amount of positive framing for research. But it does raise questions the scientific community—both men and women—may need to reflect on.

Across most occupations, the way in which individuals “sell” themselves to others is one factor in advancement. Although we focused on scientists, our findings shed new light on how men and women stake claims about accomplishments, scientific or otherwise, and how those differences might combine with other forms of gender inequality to influence career outcomes.

Department: Opinion