Papers that use positive words in headlines likelier to be cited

The power of positive phrasing.

Women remain underrepresented in academic medicine and the life sciences more broadly. A recent study even has offered evidence that the proportion of women declines at every career step.

One mechanism that may contribute to this gender orientation is differences in the extent to which women promote their research achievements comparative with men. Yet, systematic evidence of differences in how men and women present their research findings in the academic life sciences is lacking.

The study suggests that the language male and female scientists choose to describe their discoveries can drive levels of attention from peers, boost subsequent citations, and eventually contribute to career advancement. This is the first large scale study to evaluate gender differences in language framing in biomedical research.

For the study, scientists analyzed over 6 million peer-reviewed clinical and life-science publications. They found that papers by male authors tend to have 21 percent more positive phrases than those with female lead authors. In particular, male authors more likely to use words such as “excellent,” “novel,” and “unique” in the titles and abstracts than female authors.

For this study, scientists used natural language processing to parse the papers’ language. They also showed that studies using such framing had up to 13 percent more citations by other researchers than papers without a positive spin.

Senior author Anupam Jena, the Ruth L. Newhouse Associate Professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School said, “The factors that underlie gender disparities in academia are many and complex, but it is important to be aware that language may also play a role — as both a driver of inequality and as a symptom of gender differences in socialization.”

To account for any potential changes in editorial practices over the years or between journals, the researchers compared papers from the same publication and the same year with one another. To control for differences in types of research, the team compared only publications that investigated topics of similar novelty (determined from the keywords assigned to the articles), such as randomized controlled trials in cancer.

Over 101,000 studies that were published between 2002 and 2017 in clinical journals indexed in PubMed were analyzed along with other 6.2 million general life-science studies. Then the gender of the authors was determined using the database Genderize.

Articles in which the first and last authors were both females were, on average, 12.3 percent less likely to use positive terms to describe research findings compared with studies in which either the first or last author was male.

It means using positive words had a significant impact on how readers perceived the research. The effect was even more pronounced in high-impact clinical journals, where papers with promotional titles and abstracts had 13 percent more citations.

Lead author Marc Lerchenmüller, assistant professor for technological innovation and management science at the University of Mannheim in Germany, said, “It’s useful for men and women to be aware that these language differences exist, and that they may impact how research is perceived.”

Scientists noted, “Gender imbalance in biomedical research and academic medicine has many causes, which means that increasing equity will require many approaches across many fronts, including education, mentoring, and publishing.”

“The scientific and medical communities will need to work together to find ways to close these persistent gender gaps. For example, mentors should help women be thoughtful about using all available tools to position and promote research in a way that the research deserves, so it gets read, shared, and used. Journal editors should be aware that these differences exist and should have objective protocols in place to make sure that researchers use the same language to describe similar research results.”

Jena said, “As a society, we want the best work to rise to the top on its own merits — how it helps us understand and improve health — not based on the gender of the researchers or on the researchers’ own opinion about whether their work is groundbreaking.”

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