Retracting a bad take on female mentorship

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The authors of a widely criticized article on the supposed drawbacks of female mentorship in science retracted the paper, one month after Nature Communications said it was looking into how and why the research was published in the first place.

“We are an interdisciplinary team of scientists with an unwavering commitment to gender equity, and a dedication to scientific integrity,” the authors wrote in a retraction notice Monday. “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 original article looked at the connection between the gender of junior and senior co-authors across 100 years of science research and the authors’ citation counts. The researchers noticed that having more senior female co-authors — a proxy for female mentorship — was associated with a decrease in career citations, of up to 35 percent, especially among female protégées. So they concluded that “opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who pursue a scientific career.”

To bolster their argument that co-authorship equals informal mentorship, the authors of the controversial paper surveyed a random sample of researchers from their data set. Those scientists tended to agree that writing a paper with a someone senior amounted to mentorship.

The article’s many critics said that was a flimflam premise, however. Among other concerns, they argued that a paper casting doubt on something as important as the value of female mentorship should be rooted in much firmer analysis.

Anonymous reviewers of the article flagged these issues prior to publication. Nature Communications green-lit the piece following some revisions, but the article still met with immediate resistance. Almost as quickly, the journal agreed to investigate.

Three experts reviewed the piece as part of that process. All agreed with the article’s critics.

As the authors explained in their retraction note, “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 article’s co-authors, Bedoor AlShebli, Talal Rahwan and Kinga Makovi, all do computational social sciences research at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. AlShebli, an assistant professor, previously told Inside Higher Ed, “We highlight that the elevation of women in science depends on the achievement of at least two objectives: retaining women in scientific careers — for which female mentors are indispensable, as explicitly mentioned in our paper — and maximizing women’s long-term impact in the academy.”

In their retraction notice, AlShebli and her co-authors said that “Many women have personally been extremely influential in our own careers, and we express our steadfast solidarity with and support of the countless women who have been a driving force in scientific advancement. We hope the academic debate continues on how to achieve true equity in science — a debate that thrives on robust and vivid scientific exchange.”

Some participants in the initial debate about the paper accused its biggest critics of being uncomfortable with the findings. Those critics pushed back, saying there’s a difference between uncomfortable findings and shoddy, even irresponsible analysis.

In a separate editorial published Monday, Nature Communication’s editors made clear the retraction wasn’t about covering up ugly truths.

“Simply being uncomfortable with the conclusions of a published paper, would and should not lead to retraction on this basis alone,” the editors wrote. “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.”

In this case, the editors said, “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.”

As to how the paper was published despite the internal reviewers’ concerns, Nature Communications said the authors added the survey linking co-authorship to mentorship during the review process. Yet upon publication, “it became clear that the concerns had not been sufficiently addressed, and we started an investigation.”

Going forward, the journal said, studies of this nature and consequence will be “considered from multiple perspectives including from groups concerned by the findings.” These updates to internal processes “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.”

The editors said they’ll keep updating guidelines for manuscripts with “sensitive research in the social and behavioral sciences, and in areas with significant societal and public policy impact.”



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