Gender Equality Also Passes Through Language

An article published in the British Medical Journal highlights another lesser-known component of gender inequality in the world of research: male scientists are statistically more inclined than women to praise their work and emphasize its importance in scientific articles. This is not a simple matter of vanity: the papers presented as more innovative and revolutionary are also more likely to be cited – and the number of citations is a key access key to funding and career leaps.

Researchers from the Harvard and Yale universities  and the University of Mannheim, Germany, analyzed the gender of the authors of over 6 million biological science studies published from 2002 to 2017, taking into consideration (in case of research multi-handed) first and last name authors, who often share most of the work. Then they analyzed the use of laudatory terms referring to the studies, such as “new”, “unique”, “remarkable” and “unprecedented”, in the titles and abstracts  that described the research. The most often used positive term was “new”, and men used it 59% more times than women.

In general, given the same results and research topics, men have emphasized the innovative scope of their work much more often. In the most cited scientific articles, male teams use adjectives that praise their research in 21% more cases. Those who work in the world of research use titles and abstracts to decide which works to read or cite in their own: not surprisingly, the most positive presentations were associated with 9.4% more citations from colleagues and 13% more citations in high impact clinical journals.

It is certainly not a fault to know how to value one’s work, and we have known for some time that – even outside the academic sphere – men use a more assertive language than women. Rather, the question arises, do women consciously choose to stick to “neutral” terms in presenting their research, censoring those that are too positive to avoid criticism? Or are they driven to do so by the different standards imposed by the reviewers and editors of the scientific journals on which they want to publish. Research gives no answers on this, but one possibility does not exclude the other.