Female professors publish somewhat less than their male colleagues, but this study shows that the differences are smaller than previously thought. (Illustration: www.colourbox.com)

The higher the position, the more publications – for both genders

Female researchers publish less than their male colleagues. But according to a new study, this is mainly because women tend to have lower positions in the academic hierarchy.

September 21, 2015

Although Norwegian women are getting hired for research positions in academia like never before, they are generating only one-third of the publication points in the higher education sector, according to publication figures from the Cristin database in 2014.

However, a researcher’s position in the academic hierarchy explains more of the gender differences in publication patterns than gender and age alone. This is according to Dag W. Aksnes and Kristoffer Rørstad, researchers at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU).

The researchers believe that much of the reason for the uneven gender distribution is due to scientific publication at the individual level.

“A small proportion of researchers account for a large share of the publishing: 20 percent are responsible for 60 percent of the publication points. The study shows that there are fewer women in this group of highly productive researchers. We find this to be the case in most all research fields,” says Aksnes.

“At research institutes, it is often one or two researchers who publish a lot more than the rest, and they are usually men. It’s clear that they bring up the average,” explains Rørstad.

The two NIFU colleagues have recently published the study entitled Publication rate expressed by age, gender and academic position – A large-scale analysis of Norwegian academic staff.

Professors are more productive

The higher the position in the academic hierarchy, the more productive the researchers are, and the fewer women there are.

“Professors publish three times as much as a research fellow,” says Dag W. Aksnes.


Dag W. Aksnes. (Photo: NIFU)

Professors not only have more years of experience compared with doctoral research fellows, but in addition they often play a leadership role in research groups and are therefore involved in a number of different research projects.

“This makes senior-level professors very productive, since they have large research groups and numerous projects,” explains Aksnes.

As of today, three of four professors in Norway are men, while close to 50 percent of research fellows are women.

“The average age of a professor in Norway is 56 years old, and many of them took their doctoral degrees in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At that time there was an excess of men at all levels of academia,” says Aksnes. 

Greatest gender differences in mathematics and natural science

The researchers found that the difference in publication volume between women and men was greatest in mathematics and natural science, while the smallest was in medicine. Aksnes thinks the difference may be related to the percentage of women in the various fields.

“We know that in fields with a low percentage of women, the women who are there may end up with a lot of extra duties. Since it is required that a certain number of women take part in various types of committee, this may place a heavier administrative burden on those few women,” says Aksnes.

However, the study shows that there are also differences in fields with a larger percentage of women, such as medicine. The difference between women and men is certainly less compared with the other fields, but it is stable.

Less publishing hinders a research career

Publication volume is given high priority within academic career systems, especially in connection with an application for promotion to the professor level.

In many fields competition for professorships is fierce, and only very few rise to the top. The number of publications is often the deciding factor in who gets hired or promoted.

“This is why it’s a handicap for women if they have fewer publications when they apply for a promotion,” explains Aksnes.

Previous explanations are less significant

Other explanations for why women publish less than men are often related to the amount of time they can devote to their research, as well as to their caregiving duties and involvement in academic networks. These are less relevant in this study.

As a general rule, female and male researchers have the same amount of time for research at their disposal, but time-use studies show that women spend less time on research than men.

“Some claim that women choose to spend more time on teaching and organizational work, while men more often prioritize publishing and spend time on academic supervision. When you supervise doctoral students, you are also listed as the co-author on their publications,” explains Aksnes.


Kristoffer Rørstad. (Photo: NIFU)

However, this difference alone is not great enough to explain the imbalance in publication volume between the genders, according to Aksnes and Rørstad. Another explanation is that women are absent from work more often, especially in connection with childbirth and childrearing, but findings from this study show that the situation is more complex.

“We see that gender differences in publishing are found in all age groups, including among 50- and 60-year-olds,” says Aksnes.

A third explanation suggests that men publish more because they have larger academic networks than women.

“National and international networks can give researchers more influence in their own fields and in application processes to obtain external research funding. Larger networks make it easier to join together with other colleagues. This can also result in more publications,” says Rørstad.

But according to the researchers, this explanation alone does not explain the gender differences in publishing either.

Women are moving ahead

Although the vast majority of professors are men, the researchers believe that the current situation is about to change.

“In Norway, we are now seeing for the first time that more women than men are completing doctoral degrees,” says Aksnes.

“And if we look at the higher education system, there has been a dramatic increase in publications by women. It’s an extremely interesting change that women are moving ahead at a rapid pace,” he continues.

Figures from the Database for Statistics on Higher Education show that the number of publication points in the past six years has increased by 48 percent for women, while for men they have risen by only 11 percent. Rørstad think the increase is related to the growing percentage of women in academic positions.

“This mainly reflects the change in the gender composition of academic staff within the sector. In the period from 2008 to 2013, there were 1,050 more women compared with only 400 more men. This means that women accounted for 75 percent of the increase in the number of people in permanent academic positions during that period,” he explains.

“And that is a small revolution in itself,” says Aksnes.

Unique data set

The researchers have looked at the publications of more than 12,000 university researchers over a seven-year period in the Cristin database. The database includes all subject areas, including within the humanities and social sciences, which are not covered as well by other international databases because they do not include books.

To highlight individual differences, the researchers have looked at average publication rates at the individual level, rather than at the total number of women and men. By taking this approach, they have been able to study the differences between women and between men – differences which appear to be associated with position, not gender.

“If you include everyone in a single group, you won’t see the change in gender balance in academia that is about to occur,” explains Aksnes.

Translated by Connie Stultz.

Read more

The article entitled Publication rate expressed by age, gender and academic position – A large-scale analysis of Norwegian academic staff was published in the Journal of Informetrics on 11 March 2015.

The authors are Kristoffer Rørstad and Dag W. Aksnes of NIFU.

The study shows that:

  • Associate professors have a 20 to 30 percent lower publication rate than professors, depending on the field.
  • The gender differences are greatest within mathematics and natural science (about 20 percent). Men publish 0.87 articles per year, while women publish 0.53 articles per year.
  • The gender differences are smallest in medicine (about 10 percent). Men publish 0.63 articles per year, while women publish 0.47 articles per year.
  • Age has the most significance for the publication rate in medicine, while it is the least relevant in mathematics and natural science.
  • The publication rate increases the most up to the 40–50 age range, which is associated with the academic hierarchy of positions.