Men more likely than women to put a positive spin on medical research

Scientific and medical research with male authors is more likely to be self presented with positive words compared to research with first or last female authors, according to a new study published in The BMJ. That is, men are more likely than women to put a positive spin on their own work.

The study analyzed gender differences in the self presentation of scientific research from more than 100,000 clinical research articles published between 2002 and 2017. Researchers looked for specific terms like “novel,” “unique,” “unprecedented” and more words that were used to describe research, assembling data from several sources such as the PubMed database. They determined probable gender of the authors through the Genderize database that allows gender assignment for authors based on their first names.

The study also examined the external validity of its findings in a dataset of 6.2 million general life science articles from the same time period.

“We found that articles in which the first and last author were both women were significantly less likely to use positive terms to describe research findings compared with articles in which the first and/or last author was a man,” wrote first author Marc J. Lerchenmueller, assistant professor at the University of Mannheim in Germany and of Yale University School of Management, and colleagues. “Gender differences in the positive presentation of research findings were largest in high impact journals.”

Researchers narrowed in on 25 positive words used to frame research findings, with 12.1% of all clinical trials and 11.7% of life science articles using at least one of the 25 positive words. Just 17% of the clinical research models involved a female first and last author, compared to 83% of articles with a male first or last author.

Over the time frame, positive wording also rose 80%––from 9% of articles in 2002 to 16.9% in 2017.

The most frequently used positive word was “novel,” and it was used significantly more in male-authored research compared to female-authored work––59.2% more often. “Unique” was used 43.8% more by teams with male authors and “promising” was used 72% more often.

Articles with more positive presentations also had higher citations later, according to the study.

“Positive presentation of research findings was also associated with higher downstream citations, suggesting that observed gender differences in the positive framing of research may have a number of important implications,” Lerchenmueller et al. wrote.

The findings add to the collection of information about gender differences in medicine, with female scientists experiencing a gender gap and being less likely to become junior and then senior faculty. However, researchers weren’t able to conclude how positive self presentation of work actually impacts scientific research.