Many scientists mark the evolution of their careers by publications: Their first paper, their first stint as a lead author, the first time they earn a final or senior spot. But for women and members of some minority groups, those benchmarks can be especially hard to reach, according to a study published in the May 2018 issue of AEA Papers and Proceedings.
By Chris Woolston
The analysis—which covered 486,644 biomedical articles with two to nine authors published between 1946 and 2009—found that female, black and Hispanic authors were less likely than were white men to hold prestigious last-author spots. And while all scientists tended to land more last-author spots as their careers went on, that trend was slower for women and minorities. “There’s a lack of progression for those groups,” says Bruce Weinberg, a co-author of the study and an economist at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Scientists in the first four years of their careers had an 18% chance of holding the final-author spot for any of their publications. That number held fairly steady regardless of gender or race, but gaps appeared as time went on. By years 24 through 29, the odds of holding a senior spot odds rose to 37% for scientists as a whole, but women and Hispanics lagged roughly 10 percentage points behind. Black authors also lagged behind, but not quite as dramatically.
The study used computer programs to estimate race and gender based on names. As Weinberg notes, the process is imprecise. Plenty of black or Hispanic people have names that the programs would classify as “white,” and some first names are gender neutral. It could be that simply having a “white” or male-sounding name has some advantages.
Weinberg says he’d also like to know more about why women and minorities were relatively slow to crack the final author spots. One possibility is that they were less likely to become principal investigators, but that’s likely not the whole story. Collaborative papers often have multiple authors who run their own lab, so it’s possible to be a PI and not claim the final-author spot. Even in a group of potentially senior authors, white men may have a knack for ending up at the end of the list.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.