Nature Communications has added an editor’s note and launched a “priority” investigation into a recently-published peer-reviewed paper suggesting that women in STEM see greater success when they work with male mentors over female mentors.

The article, titled “The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance,” was published in Nature Communications on November 17 and penned by three authors from New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, two of whom are women.

It identifies three million mentor-protégé pairs, defined as a junior and senior scientist who collaborated on a paper, in more than 300 million research publications. It then attempts to measure the success of the mentorship program.

Level of success was quantified using two measures: 1) what the authors call the “big-shot experience,” which analyzes how successful the mentor was at the time of their collaboration through the average number of accumulated citations and 2) the “hub experience,” which looks at the mentor’s network of professional connections at the start of the mentorship.

According to a statement by the study’s authors, the researchers “found that increasing the proportion of female mentors was associated not only with a reduction in post-mentorship impact of female protégés, but also a reduction in the gain of female mentors.”

“While current diversity policies encourage same-gender mentorships to retain women in academia, our findings raise the possibility that opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who end up pursuing a scientific career,” Assistant Professor of Computational Social Science and lead author Bedoor Al Shebli, said in a statement.

“Our findings add a new perspective to the policy debate on how to best elevate the status of women in science.”

The paper drew swift and strong criticism from the scientific community, with some pointing out the authors did not adjust for the implicit and outright biases endured by female scientists at all levels of expertise. 

The paper also fails to account for the gender gap in citations that is observed in some areas of study.

Others have criticized the erasure of trans and non-binary scientists in the findings — particularly glaring, given the large body of data involved.

An examination of the paper’s peer reviews shows some issues were raised with the study’s methodology and its use of causal language, but after the authors made some of the suggested revisions the piece was ultimately cleared for publication.

Among the criticisms were the paper’s limited definiton of “mentorship,” amounting to a junior writing a paper with a more senior scientist, the inability to predict gender based on a name with 100 per cent accuracy, and the binary gender charactizeration of the names analyzed.

All of this, according to critics — including the reviewers of the paper — weakens the argument that women are inferior mentors when compared to men.

Dr. Leslie Vosshall, a neurobiologist at the Rockefeller University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, wrote an open letter to Nature arguing it had an “ethical duty” to retract the piece. 

“The general consensus among hundreds of colleagues who have read and commented on this paper … is that it is deeply methodologically flawed, and with the potential to inflict serious harm on the global scientific community,” Dr. Vosshall writes.

“…The conclusions reached by the authors that being mentored by a female is detrimental to career outcomes of young scientists, particularly female scientists, are based on flawed analysis. I find it deeply discouraging that this message — avoid a female mentor or your career will suffer — is being amplified by your journal.”

Nature replied to the open letter directly on Twitter, thanking Dr. Vosshall for raising the concerns and acknowledging an investigation is underway.

“We’re aware of the concerns raised regarding the publication of this paper,” Nature said in a statement released on social media on November 19.

“We thank those who’ve contacted us about this issue & we’re looking into it as a matter of priority. @NatureComms strongly believes in & supports equality and diversity in research.”

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RESEARCH IN SUPPORT OF FEMALE MENTORS

There is evidence that some women benefit greatly from same-sex mentors — notably, a study from April 2020 that found female economists were more likely to stay in their field, earn tenure, and publish papers than women who were not introduced to mentors during a two-day networking program.

There is also evidence that a lack of female role models is a barrier preventing some women from entering STEM in the first place.

“Characteristics like gender, race, sexuality and health status affect how we experience life, often because they affect how we are treated by others (even if they shouldn’t),” reads an op-ed in Chemistry World

“But they don’t define how skilled we are. A female mentee might find it valuable to seek out a female mentor who can share their experience of the career challenges they faced because of their gender. Or they might not – after all, not all of a woman’s problems are gender-related.

In any case, the effectiveness of the mentoring experience will depend on the relationship formed between mentor and mentee – whether they have complementary personalities, shared expectations, appropriate skills, and whether they trust each other. If you think these dimensions can be measured by simply looking at the genders of the people in the relationship then I think we’ve found your imperfection.”

On November 20, Nature added an editor’s note to the piece:

Readers are alerted that this paper is subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Those criticisms were targeted to the authors’ interpretation of their data that gender plays a role in the success of mentoring relationships between junior and senior researchers, in a way that undermines the role of female mentors and mentees. We are investigating the concerns raised and an editorial response will follow the resolution of these issues.

SOURCE

We Rep STEM has reached out to Nature for further comment. We will update the article if we hear back.