Gender equity in retractions

From the abstract of a fascinating study published in PLoS ONE on May 3, 2023:

… this study investigated gender differences in authorship of retracted papers in biomedical sciences available on RetractionWatch. Among 35,635 biomedical articles retracted between 1970 and 2022, including 20,849 first authors and 20,413 last authors, women accounted for 27.4% [26.8 to 28.0] of first authors and 23.5% [22.9 to 24.1] of last authors. The lowest representation of women was found for fraud (18.9% [17.1 to 20.9] for first authors and 13.5% [11.9 to 15.1] for last authors) and misconduct (19.5% [17.3 to 21.9] for first authors and 17.8% [15.7 to 20.3] for last authors). Women’s representation was the highest for issues related to editors and publishers (35.1% [32.2 to 38.0] for first authors and 24.8% [22.9 to 26.8] for last authors) and errors (29.5% [28.0 to 31.0] for first authors and 22.1% [20.7 to 23.4] for last authors). Most retractions (60.9%) had men as first and last authors. Gender equality could improve research integrity in biomedical sciences.

That last line was unexpected, no? Were the authors suggesting that bringing more women into science would reduce retractions or that men are predisposed to publishing the sort of papers that are later retracted? To be sure, both are dangerous – and probably misguided – positions to take. I suspect the authors included that line in the abstract because they felt they had to put down some sort of takeaway. Nonetheless, the authors attempt some kind of analysis later in the paper; for example:

… the gender differences in reasons for retraction deserve careful consideration. Women’s underrepresentation was greater for misconduct and fraud and lower for plagiarism, duplication of content, and errors. Women’s representation was also higher for issues related to editors and publishers, which are out of author’s remit [sic]. This is in keeping with previous studies suggesting that men are more likely than women to be involved in fraud and misconduct in research [9, 15]. For instance, in a sample of 113 retractions from diverse scientific fields, fraud and plagiarism accounted for 28.6% of women-authored retractions and 59.2% men-authored retractions [9]. The underlying reasons for these gender differences are difficult to pinpoint. They may be related to attitudes toward research integrity, which are themselves influenced by career goals and ambitions as well as social norms [16, 17]. Gender stereotypes and bias at societal level may result in differences in moral standards and values, which then influence attitudes and behaviours related to research integrity. …

Although only a small fraction of biomedical research papers is estimated to be retracted [2], the marked gender differences in underlying reasons for retractions may have important implications. Addressing longstanding gender bias and other barriers that hinder women’s progression in academia and research could enhance the integrity and moral standards of the scientific community overall and, hence, reduce misconduct and fraud [19]. Achieving gender equality across the academic ladder, particularly in positions of power and influence, would allow women to serve as role modellers and exert a positive influence on research teams and institutions to adhere to the highest standards of research integrity. This could have far-reaching benefits from increasing public’s trust in science [20], to improving the value of research for populations and reducing the long-term harms caused by fraudulent research [21].

There have been many indications that women already in science feel the need to perform better than their male counterparts in order to be credited with the same level of success (all arbitrarily defined, of course). Recall the allegations of bullying against Marcella Carollo at the Institute of Astronomy at ETH Zurich until August 2017. Against this backdrop, it seems to me to be possible that the minority female population in science may feel compelled to be more law-abiding and rule-bound in order to lower the risk of being ejected from the field. It’s also possible that because women already struggle more than men to enter science, and thereon to ascend through the ranks, that the opportunities to and the importance of being a role-model to the women who follow weigh heavier upon their shoulders than on the shoulders of male scientists.

But this is only when the female population in science has minority status compared to the male population, and many barriers persist to more women holding positions of authority and power at scientific institutions. When this is not true, i.e. when there are no gender-based barriers to excelling in science (defined in any way), I don’t think it will be possible to draw relationships between a person’s gender and their proclivity for substandard or ‘retractable’ science. If such relationships exist, they will quite likely have a specific historicity, and in the absence of such historicity, I can’t think of any reason why any arbitrarily selected demographic group should be less or more capable of being responsible for research misconduct.

With this in mind, I don’t think “gender equality could improve research integrity in biomedical sciences” is a helpful statement in the context of a limited and strictly quantitative assessment, especially if the prevention of misconduct is being advanced as a reason to bring more women into or retain women in science.