For equity we need a broader definition of success

University of Helsinki

Discussions of a broken value system are ubiquitous in science. Anne Duplouy is part of a team of 24 international women scientists pushing for a shift in the value system to redefine “impact” and “success” in science.

Our work, published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, explains that Science itself is not “broken,” but it was built on deeply entrenched, systemic sexist and racist values, which perpetuate biases through the continued focus on citation counts and impact factors.

I strongly believe our work will positively influence people in position of power to revisit the way ‘impact and success’ are defined and assessed, in order to actively support equity and diversity in Science and Society.

What are those biased metrics? I am, we are, talking about citation count, publication count, impact factors and other similar metrics associated to scientific journals. These metrics are broadly used to evaluate researchers for recruitment and retention in Academia, for example during job application and assessment of tenures processes. They are also used to evaluate Universities internationally for example in the international ranking systems.

The biases persist

However, as explained in our article published on the 15 June 2021, these metrics are well-known to be biased. The idea of gaps between men and women in Academia and other sectors of society is not new, and the Covid-19 pandemic served to further expose such inequality globally. Women are taking the burden of the family more often and that may affect their ability to be as productive as their male colleagues.

However, even without the pandemic, the biases persist. Women and marginalized groups are constantly showing lower citation records, not because of their work quality but because the simple lecture of their names, or guessing of their hormone types, can negatively influence how others are judging their work.

In contrast, women and members of other marginalized groups are known to be more engaged in other aspects of academia – and society – such as mentoring, justice, or the organization of outreach events. Such tasks are part of our work, they represent other facets of how we are giving back to the society, to our tax payers! But they are also time demanding and are unfortunately not often considered when success and merit are assessed.

A vicious circle

At the University of Helsinki, the non-discrimination act is an important part of the recent strategic plan of the University. Actions are currently taken and efforts made to promote equity and diversity. Leaders can train to identify biases and prejudices, or to promote well-being in their working environment, and the University of Helsinki has already pushed towards equal sex-ratio, and higher diversity at all levels.

But the University gets its funding from a government that base its yearly contribution very largely on the international ranking of the University and its productivity: meaning – the impact of the research published and impact factors of the journals. This is a vicious circle, and without the support of people in position of power and decision, marginalized groups will remain.

Supporting change toward a more just system

We, the authors maintain that while equity within science has advanced thanks to the tireless efforts of generations of systemically marginalized groups around the world, including Finland, the system remains however outdated, colonialist, and patriarchal. It overemphasizes contributions of males, and downplays the breadth of individuals’ meaningful scientific impacts outside of scientific literature – and especially the contributions of women and other marginalized groups.

In contrast, by rejecting all forms of implicit and systematic biases, and by expanding measures of success beyond citations, and embracing the multifaceted nature of scientific impact, of mentorship and of wellbeing in science, all members of the scientific community – particularly those in positions of power – will support change toward a more equitable, inclusive, and just system.

To finish, I can only quote our co-lead author Dr. Sarah Davies, an Assistant Professor of Biology at the Boston University USA, who said “As scientists, we should let the data speak for themselves – citations and impact metrics have been repeatedly shown to be sexist and racist, yet we still use them. It is high time we shift to a system that appreciates the varied avenues of impact in science and valuing mentorship and advocating for diversity will be key components of this change”.

Writer is Dr. Anne Duplouy, a Mum, a French woman expat in Finland since 2010, and an Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Research Program, the University of Helsinki. Her group studies the Ecology and Evolution of host-symbiont interactions.

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