Women researchers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) departments tend to have a wider range of collaborators than men, but are still significantly underrepresented, especially in genomics, according to a new study.
"Understanding how collaboration differs by gender is very important. We already know that collaboration is tightly connected to productivity and impact, two main currencies in obtaining and advancing in academic positions," said Stasa Milojevic of Indiana University, Bloomington, who was not part of the new study.
"If there are systematic differences in collaboration patterns we are more likely to experience differences in gender balance, both among the top performers and work in particular sub-fields," Milojevic told Reuters Health by email.
Lead author Xiao Han T. Zeng of Northwestern University and coauthors studied the complete publication records of nearly 4,000 faculty members at top U.S. research universities in six STEM disciplines: chemical engineering, chemistry, ecology, materials science, molecular biology and psychology. They included all active faculty members of those universities as of 2010.
Women had fewer distinct coauthors in their total publications, but this was explained by publishing fewer papers during shorter careers, the researchers found.
Female scientists were also less likely than the males to publish again with previous co-authors.
In molecular biology in particular, women later in their careers had significantly fewer co-authors per publication than men, according to the study in PLoS Biology.
"This study shows conspicuous male dominance in genomics," Milojevic said. "Other studies have suggested that women tend to work on less prestigious topics and areas."
This might be important for science policy at a number of levels, she said.
"Detailed knowledge of collaboration patterns at all stages of career (grad students to full professors) and all types of institutions (not only top research universities) can help with developing strategies that will decrease gender disparities in science," she said.
"Science is a collaborative enterprise, and even more so today given the large increase in multi-authored papers in the last 20 years," said Jevin West, who studies the "science of science" at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"If indeed, there is a difference by gender in collaborative patterns and behavior, this is something not to be ignored," West, who was not part of the new study, told Reuters Health by email. "The infrastructure of science depends on these collaborations and if women are being excluded for institutional or cultural reasons, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health needs to address this issue head on."