Sexism is often used to frame the discovery of the structure of DNA in the early 1950s. The story is one in which the contribution of a female scientist is overlooked while her male colleagues reap all the rewards. This is not an uncommon trope in the history of science, a phenomenon labeled as the Matilda effect by science historian Margaret W. Rossiter.
Under closer scrutiny, however, the DNA story reveals a more nuanced narrative about the disparities in giving credit where it is due. These disparities still persist in our contemporary scientific landscape, and the biases behind them are hindering scientific and technological advancement.
In 1953, a set of three research papers was published sequentially in Nature, with each paper addressing discoveries related to the structure of DNA. The first article, by James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick, was theoretical, containing a “purely diagrammatic” figure. The authors acknowledged that the ideas were “stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin, and their coworkers.”
The second article, a more data-driven report, was published by Maurice Wilkins and two other colleagues. The third article, authored by Rosalind Franklin and doctoral student Raymond G. Gosling, was highly analytical and contained “Photo 51,” an X-ray diffraction pattern credited for its precision and contribution to the DNA structure discovery.
It’s well-established that Franklin’s data were instrumental for Crick’s calculations. Yet, in the history of this discovery it is not Franklin’s data, but rather Crick’s calculations, that receive credit. This is an important element in the story: Perhaps Franklin was overlooked not because she was a woman rather than a man, but because she was an experimentalist rather than a theorist. That supposition begs the question: Are labor roles in science equally distributed and equitably rewarded?
Our recent research on authorship patterns demonstrates that significant gender disparities exist in contemporary labor roles in science. Women are more likely to earn authorship from performing experimental work, whereas men are typically associated with conceptual work, such as the design of the experiment.
Some may argue that this is merely an artifact of the leadership roles in science and will dissipate as more women become heads of labs. However, the disparities hold when controlling for academic age—that is, the years since first publication. Even when women become senior researchers they remain more likely to contribute to experiments than men, which suggests that disparities are perpetuated with certain roles developed in junior years that are carried on throughout the academic life cycle.
These disparities are problematic when considering the larger context of the scientific system. For example, a report released last year by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that science advances “one funeral at a time,” with scientific leaders indirectly controlling the discourse and rate of scientific advancement within their subareas. When an eminent scholar departs, new voices are heard, opening the subareas to new ideas and new growth. Let’s hope that we really need not wait for death to hear all voices in science.
The increasing number of authors per paper observed in all disciplines in recent years is another aspect to assigning credit that is in part the result of the growing complexity and interdisciplinarity of research. But it also demonstrates increasing recognition of the“invisible technicians” in science. By placing all those who contribute to science on the byline, we acknowledge that authorship—the coin of the academic realm—is a currency that should be provided to all those who labor in science, including lab technicians, lab managers, doctoral students, and established researchers alike.
Unfortunately, as authorship lists increase, greater emphasis is placed on first and last authors, as these are typically associated with the highest levels of contribution and responsibility. Given that women garner fewer of these coveted spots and are underrepresented in the production of scientific articles, their contributions to science may remain suppressed and undervalued.
The Academy of Medical Sciences acknowledged the discontinuities in our current reward system in a report published earlier this year, arguing for better delineating of individual contribution and better practices to equitably credit collaborative work. This call to action resonates with Drummond Rennie and his colleagues’ proposal, made nearly 20 years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for a “radical change” in scholarly communication, moving from authorship to contributorship—replacing names on a byline with a list of the contributions of each individual to the scholarship.
Some journals, such as those by PLOS and some American Chemical Society journals, have adopted contributorship models as a supplement to the traditional byline. However, there hasn’t yet been large-scale adoption of contributorship data, nor have we found ways to meaningfully integrate these data into current evaluation systems, such as for promotions and tenure review. Furthermore, the relegation of certain segments of the population to particular types of contributions diminishes potential for creativity and innovation throughout the research process.
Franklin died an untimely death before the Nobel Prize was jointly awarded to Crick, Watson, and Wilkins. We are not here to judge whether her gender would have kept her from joining that prized triad—replacing one of the men, as the prize is capped at three individuals. Rather, it bears questioning whether Franklin’s contribution would have been recognized as sufficient.
Our work suggests that certain contributions are more lucrative, from the perspective of academic capital, and these are more likely to be associated with male scientists. Therefore, either the distribution of labor or the reward system of science must be reexamined. If we maintain the status quo, women and other individuals who remain undervalued are more likely to leave science. Providing transparency in the way labor is rewarded and recognized is a logical step toward an equitable system, one in which gender, age, and any other measure of pecking order no longer matter.
Cassidy R. Sugimoto is an associate professor of informatics at Indiana University, Bloomington, and president of the International Society for Scientometrics & Informetrics.
Vincent Larivière is an associate professor of information science at the University of Montreal and holds the Canada Research Chair on the Transformations of Scholarly Communication. They specialize in teasing out underlying stories hidden in authorship patterns of scientific research papers.