Nature Communications has retracted a November 17 paper claiming women scientists see more career success when they work with male mentors over female mentors. The paper, titled “The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance,” was penned by three authors from New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, two of whom are women.

It drew swift and widespread criticism online, due to its limited definition 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 characterization of the names analyzed.

Others pointed out the authors did not adjust for the implicit and outright biases endured by female scientists at all levels of expertise, that the paper fails to account for the gender gap in citations observed in some areas of study, and criticized the erasure of trans and non-binary scientists.

Nature added an editor’s note to the paper on November 19 in response and officially retracted the paper on December 21 following the review of three experts.

Per the  retraction notice:

“The three independent experts commented on the validity of the approaches and the soundness of the interpretation in the Article. They supported previous criticisms in relation to the use of co-authorship as a measure of mentorship. Thus, any conclusions that might be drawn on biases in citations in the context of co-authorship cannot be extended to informal academic mentorship. The experts also noted that the operationalisation of mentorship quality was not validated in the paper.

Although we believe that all the key findings of the paper with regards to co-authorship between junior and senior researchers are still valid, given the issues identified by reviewers about the validation of key measures, we have concluded that the most appropriate course of action is to retract the Article.”

The notice says all authors agree with the retraction.

In an accompanying editorialNature says it did not retract the paper because of its conclusion, but rather, because of its methodology.

“Simply being uncomfortable with the conclusions of a published paper, would and should not lead to retraction on this basis alone. If the research question is important, and the conclusions sound and valid, however controversial, there can be merit in sharing them with the research community so that a debate can ensue and a range of possible solutions be proposed,” The editors say.

“In this case, the conclusions turned out not to be supported, and we apologize to the research community for any unintended harm derived from the publication of this paper.”

In light of the investigation, Nature says it has “reviewed” its editorial policies, developed new guidelines for editors, and “updated information for authors” on how Nature-branded properties “approach this type of paper.”

Going forward, Nature says it will work harder to ensure studies take in multiple perspectives, including comments from groups who may find the conclusions harmful.

“We believe that this will help us ensure that the review process takes into account the dimension of potential harm, and that claims are moderated by a consideration of limitations when conclusions have potential policy implications,” Nature says.

“We will keep developing our guidelines for manuscripts with sensitive research in the social and behavioural sciences, and in areas with significant societal and public policy impact.”

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