“Publish or perish” is a common refrain among academics. Perspective or opinion articles, in particular, provide important insights that can influence an author’s field and enhance her career. That’s why a new JAMA study looking into female author representation in medical journals is so troubling.
Undertaken by researchers at Drexel University College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School, the study found that female physicians are underrepresented opinion article authors in the four highest-impact pediatric journals — even though most (around 62 percent) pediatricians are women. Though other studies have highlighted the gender-related publication gap in scientific and medical journals, this paper shows the problem extends beyond articles focused on original research.
The researchers identified 336 “perspective-type” articles written by physicians of known genders that were published between 2013 and 2017 in the four highest-impact general pediatric journals: Academic Pediatrics, JAMA Pediatrics, The Journal of Pediatrics, and Pediatrics.
Out of those articles, almost 60 percent were written by men, with just 140 (42 percent) authored by female physicians. Notably, all four journals are led by editors-in-chiefs who are men, and all have formal affiliations with medical societies that physicians belong to in order to support their careers.
Nancy Spector, MD, professor of pediatrics and associate dean of faculty development at Drexel University College of Medicine, co-authored the study. Spector also serves as executive director of the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) program, a one-year fellowship aimed at expanding the national pool of qualified women candidates for leadership positions in health care.
“Intentional inclusion and solicitation of women authors by medical journals is a concrete and immediate action that can be taken to rectify some of the imbalance that we found in this study,” Spector said. “Inclusion needs to be a standard that is upheld by journal editors and society leaders.”
The authors note that the underrepresentation of women physician authors cannot be reasonably attributed to a lack of qualified candidates: During the study period, there were more than 33,000 female physicians, and more than 7,000 of them were full-time academic faculty. Spector and her colleagues instead point to the well-documented issue of gender disparity on journal editorial boards and unconscious bias as possible reasons for the findings.
“Diversity of thought is important for innovation in all fields in medicine. Moreover, the ability of women physicians to voice their opinion and share their knowledge is a critical component of career advancement,” the authors wrote.
They concluded by urging all journal editors to use a 6-step process with metrics described in a previous report titled “Where are the Women?” The recommendations include investigating inclusion, determining gaps, implementing strategies to address disparities, tracking results, and reporting outcomes to all stakeholders.
“Medical journals and societies have the power to change the status quo, and I hope that this study will drive immediate action, not only for perspective-type articles in one specialty, but for all gender parity issues that have been documented in the literature, but not sufficiently addressed by journal and society leaders,” said study co-author Julie Silver, MD, an associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School.
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