January 4, 2022
A new study of millions of academic papers and the scholars who wrote them finds a connection between lead authors’ racial and gender identities and their research topics—and that underrepresented groups are overrepresented in topics with relatively low citation counts.
The study’s authors say these trends limit both individual and scientific advancement. They urge more access to science for nonwhite scholars and women, plus more funding for the research they pursue.
A ‘Coarse’ Counterfactual
Co-author Thema Monroe-White, an assistant professor of management information systems at Berry College, in Georgia, said her and her colleagues’ data push back on persistent, “idealized notions of meritocracy in science.”
If science really was a meritocracy, Monroe-White said, “there would not be a relationship between race and gender, research topic and impact. That there is one demonstrates that advances in scientific knowledge are shaped by socially constructed, nonmeritocratic factors.”
As the study notes, “The compound effect of different citation rates of topics and unequal distribution on topics by race and gender leads to negative effects for marginalized groups and for science itself, as some topics become systematically less studied … The diversification of the scientific workforce is necessary to create a scientific system whose results benefit all of society.”
Demonstrating how these dynamics hurt science in the long run, the study offers what it calls a “coarse” but striking counterfactual: if the demographics of scientists across fields more closely resembled those of the U.S. population, the last 40 years would have yielded 29 percent more articles in public health, 26 percent more on gender-based violence, 25 percent more on gynecology and gerontology, 20 percent more on immigrants and minorities, and 18 percent more on mental health.