Women less cited

According to a new study by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU), female researchers are cited less often than their male colleagues.

Gunnar Sivertsen, a researcher at NIFU, is one of four researchers behind this study. (Photo: Astrid S. Dypvik)

Previous research in this area has been inconclusive, but now researchers at NIFU can confirm that female researchers are in fact cited less often than their male colleagues.

“Our main finding is that women are cited less often, but the differences between female and male researchers are not large. The explanation for why men are cited more often is that male researchers publish more articles,” says Gunnar Sivertsen, a researcher at NIFU and one of the researchers behind the study published in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (JASIST).

The researchers at NIFU have conducted a macro-study that includes 8,500 Norwegian researchers and 37,698 research articles from 1981 to 2009. These articles contain more than 300,000 citations. The study looked at articles from all fields of research, but it is weighted towards the natural sciences and medicine because these fields are best represented in the databases of the international scientific journals selected for the study. The number of citations is important since this is what shows the impact of the research.

In their article, Sivertsen and his colleagues draw on the work of U.S. sociologist Robert Merton and his hypothesis known as the Matthew Effect in Science. The idea is that a researcher who has many publications is not only cited more often than a researcher who publishes less, but extensive publication produces what researchers call a significant competitive advantage. In other words, publishing three articles generates more than three times as many citations than if only one article had been published.

Varying productivity

The difference in productivity between male and female researchers is documented in Norwegian as well as international studies, including in the article ”Child Care, Research Collaboration, and Gender Differences in Scientific Productivity” by Svein Kyvik and Mari Teigen. The findings from the study by Sivertsen and his colleagues confirm this picture. The majority of researchers in the least productive group are women.

As many as 41.2 percent of the female researchers were registered with just one article, while only 30.7 percent of the male researchers had produced just one article. The situation was the opposite for the most productive researchers. Only 13.3 percent of the female researchers were registered with more than five articles, whereas 26.6 percent of the male researchers had produced more than five articles. In addition, the most productive researchers were cited far more often than their less productive colleagues.

The researchers also made another very interesting finding that seems to negate the Matthew Effect in Science: This is that women were cited relatively more often than men viewed in relation to the number of published articles they had published. According to statistics on citations of female researchers, this is due to a small group of highly productive women who publish their findings in prestigious journals. Articles from these journals are cited much more often than what is usual for scientific journals.

“This may be related to the observation that younger and less established researchers are cited more often than older professors,” he explains. The latter group is comprised mainly of men.

Indicator of quality

“The number of citations is an indicator of quality. Scientific studies have a greater chance of being cited if they contain original, well-documented results with far-reaching implications,” says Sivertsen. Only three percent of the articles included in the study were from the humanities. Sivertsen says it is unlikely that including more humanities subjects in the study would have changed the main conclusion.

Male researchers produce more and are cited the most, but in relative terms women are cited more often than men. (Illustration: iStockphoto)

“We found variations between fields, but the main finding for all subject areas, including the humanities, was that men are cited more often,” he explains.

“When researchers cite another’s work, it is because the research is relevant. This is especially true in the natural sciences. They don’t ask who has written up the findings; they ask what relevance the research has for their own work. One could say that relevance is a more important indicator in the natural sciences. This may explain why the citations are more evenly distributed between women and men than the publications are,” says Sivertsen.

He adds that citation practices are different within the humanities.

“What we know about relevance in the humanities is that there is often a dominant theory, perspective or model that has been widely cited. The researcher being cited is often a man, but of course this depends somewhat on which generation of researchers we are talking about. But up until contemporary times research in the humanities has been dominated by men. We could have studied this more thoroughly if we had had sufficient material.”

Professors less cited

Researchers who have studied gender balance in the research sector have shown that there are fewer women in the upper echelons of the research hierarchy. When women are so underrepresented in the most prestigious academic positions, it would be reasonable to conclude that this would also affect the number of citations. But in this case, the NIFU researchers made a surprising finding.

“We found out that professors were cited less frequently than post-doctoral researchers, so there doesn’t seem to be any connection between the number of citations and the fact that there are more men than women at the professor level,” says Sivertsen.

According to the researchers, the reason for this finding is that much of the sensational, pioneering research is conducted by young researchers and that a small group of highly innovative researchers pull up the numbers for citations of post-doctoral researchers.

Unique study

The study by Sivertsen and his colleagues is unique because of the large number of  research articles it includes. The reason that the researchers have been able to conduct such an extensive study is that Norway is one of the countries in the world with the most comprehensive data on published research articles.

“We have a database of R&D statistics and a researcher registry, which are administered by NIFU. This registry covers all research personnel in Norway, both at the universities and university colleges and at the research institutes. In addition, publication is linked to the research funding system. This is why all publications are registered each year,” says Sivertsen.

“Do you have any advice on what can be done to get women to publish more and consequently be cited more?”

“Yes. It mainly has to do with ensuring that female researchers have good conditions under which to conduct their research. It has to do with time and concentration. The Faculty of Humanities at the University of Oslo carried out a study on this issue and found that female researchers are often tied up with advising duties and work on committees where their participation is needed to ensure that women are represented,” says Sivertsen.

Translated by Connie Stultz.


The article entitled “Are Female Researchers Less Cited? A Large-Scale Study of Norwegian Scientists” was published in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (JASIST).

The authors are Dag W. Aksnes, Kristoffer Rørstad, Fredrik Piro and Gunnar Sivertsen.