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Male scientists appear more likely to describe their research as “unprecedented” and “inventive” when compared to females, according to a new paper appearing in the Christmas issue of The BMJ.

This positive framing of research may be causing women-led studies to be overlooked: Researchers noted papers that were positively-described were associated with higher rates of subsequent citations and references from other researchers.

“Citations are often used to gauge a researcher’s influence so may have important implications for career progress,” lead author Marc J. Lerchenmueller and his team said in a statement.

“Women remain underrepresented in academic medicine and the life sciences. They also earn lower salaries, receive fewer research grants, and receive fewer citations than their male colleagues.”

This gender gap may due, at least in part, to the “extent to which women promote their research accomplishments relative to men.” According to the paper, a positive presentation was associated with 9.4 per cent more subsequent citations and 13 per cent more citations in high-impact journals.

Still, the authors concede the study is “observational” and doesn’t determine the exact causes of the gender gap.

The study

 Lerchenmueller and his colleagues analyzed 25 words in more than 100,000 research articles and over six million general life science articles published between 2002 and 2017.

About 17 per cent of the clinical research articles used involved a female first and last author, and about 83 per cent had a male first or last author.

The terms were then compared with the gender of the first and last authors of the studies.

“The results show that articles in which the first and last authors were both women were, on average, 12.3 per cent less likely to use positive terms to describe research findings compared with articles in which the first and/or last author was male,” the study said.

The 25 words researchers looked for were:

Novel, unique, promising, favourable, robust, excellent, prominent, supportive, encouraging, remarkable, innovative, unprecedented, bright, enormous, reassuring, creative, assuring, hopeful, astonishing, spectacular, amazing, inventive, phenomenal, groundbreaking, and inspiring.

Why is this happening?

Research suggests women are held to higher academic standards than men and that may explain the findings, the authors say.

Lerchenmueller suggests deploying “interventions” to help men exercise more restraint while calling on the scientific community “to counteract bias in order to optimally advance science.”

In an interview with the CBC, Jocalyn Clark, executive editor at the medical journal the Lancet and who was not involved in the study, agreed the best approach is to train men to be more modest about their work.

“Women are both socialized from a young age in our culture to be less aggressive or less bold than men,” she said.

“But we’re also taught that if we breach those gender norms that we’re met with negative sanctions. So even if a woman wanted to describe her work as ‘groundbreaking,’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘novel,’ they may be discouraged or silenced from doing so.”

“I think for me this piece of research speaks to the importance of it being more of a structural problem than one that’s going to go away by asking women to talk about their work differently.”

Read the full paper here.