““We are seeing some recent improvements, though I worry that those will drop precipitously as the semester begins,” Cassidy Sugimoto, professor of informatics at Indiana University at Bloomington and a co-author of an ongoing study of article submissions to preprint databases, said as her own two daughters did their remote schoolwork in the next room. “Issues such as disproportionate teaching and service obligations, coupled with the move to online schooling for children, are likely to take a toll on women in the upcoming year.”
Sugimoto and her co-authors published their initial COVID-19-era preprint analysis in Nature Index in May.
“We are all in the same storm, but not in the same boat,” they wrote at the time. “The scientific workforce has moved en masse into the home, where male faculty are four times more likely to have a partner engaged in full domestic care than their female colleagues.”
That analysis looked at submissions to 11 preprint repositories, which are indicative of overall research activity, and three platforms for registered reports, which are indicative of new projects. Sugimoto and her colleagues found that women submitted fewer articles in March and April 2020 compared to the preceding two months and to March and April 2019. Submissions by women as first, or primary, authors — often junior scholars — were especially down, with some indication that they were shifting to middle authors.
EarthArXiv, medRxiv, SocArXiv and National Bureau of Economic Research working papers saw the biggest declines in female authorship. In arXiv and bioRxiv, female authorship had been increasing in January and February 2020 but then dropped as COVID-19 spread, to match rates in earlier years.
Female first-author submissions to medRxiv, a medical preprint site, dropped from 36 percent in December to 20 percent in April, for example. In addition to potentially harming the careers of the junior scholars who often take on first-author roles, Sugimoto and her colleagues wrote that the medical first-authorship gap has public health implications. Why? If much of the current medical research is on COVID-19, and if “women and other minorities are absent,” it may “alter the emphasis on aspects of the virus that are particularly important for certain populations.” Indeed, other researchers have found that COVID-19-related papers in medicine and economics have fewer female authors than expected. In economics in particular, it is senior, male academics who are publishing on these new issues.
Sugimoto and her colleagues continue to track preprint submission rates for women. The most recent available data, from June and July, show some normalization of women’s submission rates. Regarding medRxiv, for instance, female first authorship dropped to about 16 percent in April. It has been climbing back toward the year average of about 31 percent since. Some areas have yet to improve, though. Female first-author submissions to NBER, for economics research, were still around 11 percent in June, compared to about 18 percent in June 2019 and the 16 percent year average.
Sugimoto and her colleagues have argued that the clearest way to track women’s productivity rates is via preprints, as these prepublished papers reveal what academics are submitting, not just what is getting green-lit after the formal peer-review process. Other researchers have said the same, with similar findings. Some individual journal editors similarly concerned about gender equity in publishing during COVID-19 also have shared their own submission data and analyses….”