It’s all about self-citation, says the Economist

I received a link to a piece in the Economist from a colleague this week. The lamentable lack of female professors discusses a recent piece of research by Barbara F. Walters which demonstrates that in the International Relations literature, there are a couple of clear gender differences: men cite themselves more than women, and men also cite other men more than women.

These facts can and should be interpreted in light of a few facts: men and women are differently represented at different types of institutions, and child-related career breaks have a disproportionate effect on the publication record of women.  But the authors have controlled for a wide range of variables – including career stage, type and quality of publication, etc.  They also point to the curious fact that women are four times more likely to collaborate with men, than men are with women.

If you are aware of the literature on bias, including the effect of your own stereotypes on your own behaviour, then this research is a useful demonstration of one of the mechanisms by which bias impacts negatively on the careers of women. However, the Economist’s simplistic take on these results reads quite differently: ‘women fail to win’; ‘women more often step off the career ladder to raise children’; ‘they thereby put themselves at a disadvantage’; ‘female academics are not pushy enough’; ‘unwillingness by women to self-cite’: all these phrases perpetuate the myth that somehow, it’s us.  Women are just doing it wrong.

The thing that really gets me about the Economist article, though, is not the incomplete discussion of the research or the lack of thought beyond proximate causes: it’s the dog whistle tactic of the mention of Larry Summers, and the not so subtle admiration of his daring in making the comments that he did.  The juxtaposition of this research on gender bias with the recollection of that particular episode is not accidental.

I know I don’t need to say it – but don’t read the comments.  On the other hand, the article by Professor Walter et al is very readable, and contains a lot more thoughtful discussion: for example, is the citation gap decreasing over time?*  Recommended reading for anyone interested in this stuff.

*Answer: it could be, but it could also be that there is a time-lag for the citation gap to show up.  More research needed!

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2 Responses to It’s all about self-citation, says the Economist

  1. JK says:

    On a similar note, here is a global analysis of gender biases in citations across various fields and countries that was published in Nature recently:
    Unfortunately, the authors did not examine the influence of factors such as age or tenure on a number of citations. There was one opinion offered later to explain these disparities, but I have some doubts whether this could be a major factor here:
    “Since men dominate the more expensive fields in science, as well as the experimental fields, and have more grants, they tend to have more people in their labs, produce more results, and publish more than women with smaller grants and laboratories…” (from
    So in other words, it’s all because most cited results come from the mega-labs that are often led by men. But gender gaps in citations still exist even for the female-first authors, and at least in natural sciences, the first author is usually a graduate student or a postdoc, so such explanation doesn’t really apply here.

  2. Pingback: Talent, Hard Work, and the Economist; audiences, commenters, and the importance of ‘feelings’ | Why Science Is Sexist

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