WSN’s Top 100 papers…by men

At the 100th anniversary of the Western Society of Naturalists meeting this weekend, the Presidential Address by Jay Stachowicz focused on the results of a survey intended to determine the top 100 papers of the past century. Here’s how it worked: anybody could nominate a paper, which resulted in 400+ nominations. Then folks could take a survey in which they were given 20 random papers and asked whether they belonged in the top 100, 50, 25, or 10 papers, or should not be in the top 100 at all. Survey takers were encouraged to take the survey more than once to ensure that each paper received enough feedback. As Jay noted, this was not a scientific survey, which means that one can’t put too much faith in the results. However, while the numbers might shift slightly with more scientific rigor, the process seems like it more or less works for identifying the standout papers in the field.

During his address, Jay noted the top 10 papers overall, as well as the top few papers conducted in different ecosystems and from different decades. As more and more papers were revealed, a whisper began to go around the room: “Why aren’t there any women on the list?” Shortly after, the Twittersphere began to lament the same fact, noting that none of the papers highlighted had a woman as the lead author. Likewise, there were no papers by people of color, further highlighting the lack of diversity in ecology. While there is far too little representation of people of color in the field, women are well represented, and compromise more than half of the undergraduates in marine biology classes. More than half of the conference attendees are women, as are the next two presidents of WSN. So why were there so few women on the list of the most influential papers in the field? Here are some possible answers:

(1) Although there are many women working in marine biology today, that hasn’t always been the case.

Certainly it’s true that women have been historically underrepresented in most sciences, but are far more represented today, at least at the undergraduate and graduate levels. But we’re fooling ourselves to pretend there were no important women working in the field in earlier decades. Twitter (h/t @nielsen_karina, @algaebarnacle, @KatMAnderson @RebaFay @burt_jenn) quickly pointed out a number of well-known woman scientists in marine biology, even from the earliest days: Sarah Baker (who studied seaweed zonation on the short in the early 1900s, well before Joe Connell or Paul Dayton studied barnacles), Jane Lubchenco (who is not only influential in research, but also led NOAA under President Obama), Alice Eastwood, Isabella Abbott, Kathy Ann Miller, Mimi Koehl, Nancy Knowlton, Jenn Casselle, Rachel Carson (you can buy a children’s book about her work here!… the list goes on. None of these people are fringe names in the field; all are scientists that most of us would—or at least should—recognize as influential. If you need more evidence, this photo shows that even from the earliest days of WSN, women were part of the mix:

(2) Papers with women as lead authors weren’t nominated.

This doesn’t appear to be true, either. Twitter helped refute this, as users noted a number of papers that they had nominated with women lead authors. Including entries led by the scientists listed above, papers by people such as Katherine Bradegree, Vicki Bushbaum Pearse, and Jane Watson were nominated. Furthermore, this list compiled by Karina Nielsen (below) shows even more nominated papers that made the top 100*, but weren’t recognized in the presentation as particularly influential. (Although the full list of nominated papers is online here, the rankings are not yet available on the website. Thus, it’s unclear how many of the people listed here were co-authors vs. lead authors.)

*correction: These are authors listed in the nominated papers, not necessarily the top 100. Apparently only two women lead authors finished in the Top 100 (Rachel Carson and Jane Lubchenco).

(3) It’s a leaky pipeline between undergraduate student and influential faculty

Although marine biology is dominated by women undergraduates and graduate students, the pipeline to faculty jobs is very leaky, and many good people leave the field before reaching faculty status, and moreso, before the point of producing work that influences others for generations. This is almost certainly part of the explanation for the few women that were highlighted in the Top 100. Even when departments have a 1:1 gender ratio at the faculty level (which is rare!), that’s still abysmal considering the numbers that we’re starting with at the undergrad level. We still have a lot of work to do in recognizing this problem, much less solving it.

(4) Influential men and women teach papers by men

This is probably true too. In general, many important papers are written, but only a subset become influential because of their popularity. The papers we teach to be “influential” were written by men. And then taught by men. And then taught in the next generation by more men. It’s not that excellent woman-authored publications don’t exist, they’re just not the ones we make our students read in class. For example, instead of every intro marine student reading about barnacle donation, why aren’t they reading about the algal zonation papers from a half century earlier? We all need to do a better job of highlighting woman-authored papers in our classes.

This isn’t just about expanding the canon for the sake of political correctness. It’s also about understanding why we value certain epistemologies and certain subjects over others. Our biases—and we all need to own up to having biases, both acknowledged and unacknowledged—don’t just cause us, as a field, to favor papers that have been helped, in any amount, by privilege that we can easily see, papers that were authored by the people who have always and widely been acknowledged as leaders, the men who have attained faculty positions, prestigious grants, and publications in the most respected journals. These biases might also cause us to favor certain ways of writing certain topics—barnacle zonation over algal zonation, for example—over others.

While it’s a slippery slope to suggest that there is some essential quality to each gender that causes women to write differently than men, it’s worth acknowledging that writing and work are often more personal and more political for people who are marginalized within the field, and that this difference might sometimes come through in writing. When we deride a line of inquiry as not useful or a paper as not rigorous, how much are we reflecting an implicit preference for the topics and styles that have been privileged unquestioningly for decades by the people who led the field—in other words, by men? Recognizing and celebrating different styles of writing and research is not charity, or meaningless political correctness. It’s a necessary step toward making sure our science is inclusive. And if we, as scientists, want to have and spread the best, most accurate knowledge, don’t we have to make sure we include every voice, every way of researching, writing, teaching, and understanding? This brand of inclusivity doesn’t devalue the men in the field or the work they do. Bringing other voices into the mix doesn’t mean the current voices are wrong, or bad, or done with. It means that they’re just one important part of a field that needs to continue to push for inclusivity and excellence.

This post was co-authored by Casey terHorst (Cal State Northridge) and Q Sarah Ostendorf (Occidental College).
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