Female researchers are less influenced by journal prestige – will it hold back their careers?

Female researchers are less influenced by journal prestige – will it hold back their careers?

Drawing on a natural experiment that occurred when German institutions lost access to journals published by Elsevier, W. Benedikt Schmal shows how female researchers made significantly different publication choices to their male counterparts during this period.


When Claudia Goldin received her Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, she was only the third woman to receive the award after Esther Duflo (2019) and Elinor Ostrom (2009). It was the first time in the history of the 54-year-old prize that women held more Nobels in economics than the uncles of Larry Summers (Paul Samuelson and Kenneth Arrow). An anecdote, but it illustrates the level of representation of women in economics.

There is a growing body of (economic) research on gender differences in academia. Notably, female economists tend to be held to higher standards in leading journals as measured in citations. The results are in line with recent work by Erin Hengel, who shows how papers by female economists spend longer in peer review. Based on the assumption of equal ability among men and women (on average), women (have to) devote more time to writing their papers. This, in turn, implies a lower output relative to their male colleagues and ties in with the finding that among professors in psychology, women benefit more from their papers than men. On the other hand, it may simply reflect that the work of females has to be at a higher standard. Female researchers, especially those at the start of their careers, have weaker networks. These ties again play a large role in the chances of being accepted in a journal, as personal friends who serve on editorial boards are a major boost in acceptance probability.

in economics and adjacent fields, women are not only disadvantaged by these external factors, but also because they seem to consciously choose to publish less often with publishers, they consider unfair or exploitative.

All things being equal, requiring higher standards and having weaker ties implies that women have a steeper hill to climb to publish their work in leading journals. However, in economics and adjacent fields, women are not only disadvantaged by these external factors, but also because they seem to consciously choose to publish less often with publishers, they consider unfair or exploitative. In a new paper, my co-authors and I come to this conclusion following a significant two-fold “natural experiment.” This occurred when, on the one hand, publishing in Springer Nature and Wiley journals become more attractive due to uncomplicated and free open access (for authors at German institutions). And on the other, Elsevier cut off researchers at German institutions from the most recent issues of its journals.

What happened? In an attempt to foster open science and tackle ever-rising journal subscription costs, German research libraries and institutions started to negotiate so-called transformative agreements with the leading academic publishers John Wiley & Sons, Springer Nature, and Elsevier. But while negotiations with the former two proceeded favourably, bargaining with Elsevier hit an impasse, leading to both sides accusing the other of collapsing the negotiations. Consequently, German research institutions ended their subscriptions and lost access to new Elsevier publications. All things equal, Springer Nature and Wiley journals became more attractive, Elsevier journals lost attractiveness. Other publishers, such as Taylor & Francis, SAGE, or OUP remained unaffected but became relatively less or more attractive

The journals, of course, proceeded as before, notwithstanding some researchers who stepped down from editorial boards. While the access restrictions were easy to circumvent using working paper versions, reaching out to the authors, or using predatory repositories, the blocked access was a permanent reminder for researchers that the publisher disagreed on terms and conditions in favour of easy access. This may have led researchers to question whether they should continue publishing their work with Elsevier. In stark contrast to such considerations stands the personal cost-benefit tradeoff for the individual academic. While it might be beneficial to shift away from some publishers for the discipline as a whole, individual incentives are different: The well-established incumbent journals have often gained high impact factors and other favourable metrics. Shifting to alternatives may have led, in some cases, to a downgrade in the evaluation of one’s own work.

Our analysis shows women were more likely to actually execute this opting out, while men were significantly more reluctant. One example of these differences between men and women is the shift away from publishing in Elsevier journals after the cut-off in Germany took place. The presented plot illustrates this. Each coefficient shows the average marginal effect on the likelihood of publishing work in an Elsevier journal. One can see that equally mixed teams, mostly female, and fully female research groups (1-4 authors) are significantly less likely than fully male groups to shift away from the publisher.

Our analysis shows women were more likely to actually execute this opting out, while men were significantly more reluctant.

While this behaviour supports the public good of open science more than their male colleagues do, it may also have harmed their careers at the same time. In economics, the journal where you publish your articles is closely linked to career progression. It is an influential factor in hiring decisions and the awarding of research grants. In economics, so-called `top 5’ journals are in the hands of society and university presses. But outside these `top 5,’ Elsevier hosts important general interest and field journals that are often essential highlighters on resumes. Removing these journals from one’s own set of outlets to be considered for submission strategies negatively alters the choice set in terms of the journals’ reputation.

The future will show what this means for gender diversity in the discipline. Furthermore, it remains an open question whether a wider dispersion of influential research across journals may change the discipline’s strongly hierarchical ranking of them. One upside of the general focus on prestige, however, might be the relatively low share of obscure papers stemming from paper mills in economics. So, in total, the current state of the discipline is a double-edged sword: The strong focus on prestigious journals may lift up quality in several dimensions, but comes at the cost of the strong market power of these journals (which hinders competition) and career penalties for those who try to go different ways with their work.

 


This post draws on the author’s co-authored paper, The role of gender and coauthors in academic publication behavior, published in Research Policy. 

The content generated on this blog is for information purposes only. This Article gives the views and opinions of the authors and does not reflect the views and opinions of the Impact of Social Science blog (the blog), nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Image Credit: Praveen Gupta via Unsplash.


 

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