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A case study of gender bias in science reporting

6 August 2021

An analysis reveals a persistent gender disparity in the sources quoted in Nature’s news and feature articles, although the gap is shrinking.

A splayed stack of colorful magazines
Credit: kconcha/Pixabay

Gender disparities in science have attracted a lot of attention in the last decade or so, but the biases against women in media coverage of science haven’t received nearly as much focus. A recent study of Nature’s news and feature articles sheds light on how often women are quoted in science news. The study finds that women continue to be quoted less often than men in the high-profile journal, although the gap seems to be narrowing.

Conducted by Natalie Davidson and Casey Greene of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the study, posted in June on bioRxiv, analyzed more than 22 000 journalist-written news and feature articles that were published in the front half of Nature from 2005 to 2020. The researchers used software to approximately identify the genders and ethnicities of authors and sources. The software had a few limitations: It had a slight male bias, didn’t include a nonbinary gender assignment, and couldn’t identify all names. The researchers compared the software-assessed demographics of sources quoted in Nature’s news section with that of the authors of the more than 13 000 research papers published in the back half of Nature during that period.

Davidson and Greene found a significant decrease in the proportion of men quoted in Nature’s pages over those 15 years. The analysis found that in 2005, 87% of quotes were deemed to have come from men, whereas male researchers were the first authors of 73% of research papers in the study sample. By 2020 the likelihood that quotes came from men was down to about 69%. Articles about career-related topics were the only ones to achieve gender parity, the study found.

Although Nature publishes research from several disciplines with different proportions of female participation, the new study doesn’t distinguish the results by field or topic. Research papers published in Nature also may not be representative of the gender balance in the academic community or of research overall, Davidson says.

To account for that possible bias, the researchers selected another random sample of 36 000 research papers published over the same period in other journals run by publishing giant Springer Nature, which owns Nature. When compared with that data set, the estimated proportion of men quoted in Nature news and feature articles in 2020 (69%) is higher than the percentage of male first authors of the sample papers (about 63%) but lower than the rate of male last authors (76%). In contrast, the male quotation rate is lower than the rates of male first and last authors of Nature manuscripts, which are 74% and 80%, respectively. Davidson says that Nature research papers are more likely to be male-dominated (in first and last authors) than those published in other Springer Nature journals.

In an editorial published in response to the analysis, Nature acknowledges that its journalists need to work harder to eliminate biases, noting that the new analysis has shown that software can be used to recognize such trends. The editorial also mentions that Nature has been collecting data on gender diversity in its commissioned content for the last five years.

Gender bias in Physics Today

Nature is not alone in grappling with gender bias in science journalism. In an attempt to approximately replicate the Nature study’s methodology, Physics Today recorded the people quoted in 2005 and 2020 in two staff-written sections of the printed magazine: Search & Discovery, which covers new scientific research, and Issues & Events, which focuses on science policy and matters of interest to the physical sciences community.

In 2005, about 89% of quotes in those Physics Today articles were from male sources, a rate slightly more skewed than Nature’s 87% in the same year. In 2020 the male quotation proportion was down to 74%, compared with Nature’s 69%. Unlike in the Nature study, Physics Today did not examine the gender breakdown of the authors of journal articles in the physical sciences.

Although Physics Today is doing better than in the past, clearly there is still a lot more work to do. Physics Today’s editors have been reaching out to more diverse sources in recent years and will continue to make those efforts a priority.

Physics Today editors

Outside researchers say the new research, though not yet peer reviewed, is solid. Luke Holman, an evolutionary biologist at Edinburgh Napier University in the UK, says the new study has “novel, high-quality, and transparent methodology.” Holman co-authored a 2018 study that found that at the current rate of change, it would take 16 years for female researchers—averaged across scientific disciplines—to catch up with men and produce the same number of papers. In physics the gender gap would take 258 years to disappear.

Although Holman likes the new study, he notes that it doesn’t mention how many different people are quoted in each article in the sample, how many quotes are from the same sources, and how much page space is given to each source.

“It’s a really good thing that more female scientists are being quoted, even though things like this don’t normally directly contribute to tenure decisions,” says Barton Hamilton, an economist at Washington University in St Louis who has written about the gender gap in National Institutes of Health grant applications. “It’s very important that the faculty being quoted are representative of the faculty that are doing the work.”

Other analyses have also shown that women are being quoted more often in science news than in the past. For example, the World Association for Christian Communication released the latest quinquennial report on 14 July as part of the nongovernmental organization’s Global Media Monitoring Project. The report investigated, among other things, the extent to which women are quoted in the news media. Of all the news topics, women feature most often as sources and subjects in science and health news, says study editor Sarah Macharia, a consultant in gender, media, and international policy based in Toronto.

In 1995, women were 27% of the subjects and sources in science and health stories across different types of media; that representation increased to 35% by 2015. But Macharia says that as science and health news has grown as a percentage of all news coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of women as subjects and sources has decreased to 30%. “So as that topic has come to the limelight so dramatically and interest in the news has grown, women have been displaced from that space,” Macharia says.

Davidson and Greene’s study also compared quotation rates to rates of first or last authorship for scientists with various name origins in manuscripts published in Nature and other Springer Nature journals. They reported severe under-quotation relative to their rates of authorship for scientists with names originating in East Asia, and overrepresentation of scientists with English, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh names.

Deborah Blum, a science writer and director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, explains that the reporter is responsible for identifying who did what in the studies they report on and for finding commenters from diverse backgrounds who did not work on the studies. “And that’s not just journalists trying to be politically correct,” she says. “When you have a diversity of scientists, the science is smarter. If you bring that to your reporting, your story is smarter too.”

But choosing diverse sources is not always easy or straightforward. Journalists often have to produce stories under tight deadlines and are sometimes limited to experts in a particular geographical location or time zone.

Holman sympathizes with the work that goes into finding sources but says, “If you have the opportunity to quote two equally qualified people and one of them is from an underrepresented part of the world or is a woman,” it’s best to quote that person.

Editor’s note: Dalmeet Singh Chawla regularly writes news pieces for Nature but had no involvement with the study. Madison Brewer performed the research for the Physics Today case study described in the box.

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