Fe­male sci­en­tists fail to get proper credit in pa­pers, study says

San Francisco Chronicle - - BAY AREA - By Nanette Asi­mov Nanette Asi­mov is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: nasi­[email protected]­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @Nanet­teAsi­mov

In years past, learned men have ad­vanced hu­man­ity’s un­der­stand­ing of how genes adapt and change over time, a field called pop­u­la­tion ge­net­ics.

Now, a new study sheds light on a pre­vi­ously un­known fact: Many of those sci­en­tists were learned women.

Re­searchers at San Fran­cisco State, UC Merced and Brown uni­ver­si­ties stud­ied 883 ar­ti­cles pub­lished be­tween 1970 and 1990 in the jour­nal The­o­ret­i­cal Pop­u­la­tion Bi­ol­ogy.

They found that in the 1970s in par­tic­u­lar, women who per­formed math­e­mat­i­cal com­pu­ta­tions and pro­grammed com­put­ers — doc­tor­ate-level work — typ­i­cally were not listed as au­thors of the ar­ti­cles, although their con­tri­bu­tions were es­sen­tial in de­vel­op­ing new ways of test­ing evo­lu­tion­ary hy­pothe­ses and cre­at­ing pro­ce­dures still widely used in study­ing DNA to­day.

The women’s work on these sem­i­nal re­search pa­pers was not al­ways ig­nored: Some were thanked in the ac­knowl­edg­ment sec­tion at the end.

“No­body reads ac­knowl­edg­ments,” said co-au­thor Rori Rohlfs, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy at San Fran­cisco State. “As a re­sult, you don’t get any aca­demic credit.”

And with­out such credit, there is no grant money, no job as a pro­fes­sor, no fu­ture in the field, Rohlfs said. “The cur­rency of academia is au­thor­ship.”

Pub­lish or per­ish. By ne­glect­ing the con­tri­bu­tions of women, it can ap­pear to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions that women didn’t con­trib­ute. Yet “these con­tri­bu­tions might well have re­sulted in au­thor­ship to­day,” wrote the re­searchers, who said the sup­pres­sion of work by women in one sci­en­tific field sug­gests the prac­tice was com­mon in oth­ers.

“We are now in a cul­tural mo­ment when the his­tor­i­cal sci­en­tific con­tri­bu­tions of women and people of color are be­ing in­creas­ingly re­vealed to pop­u­lar au­di­ences,” the study notes and points to the 2016 movie “Hid­den Fig­ures,” set in the pre-civil-rights-era South. It’s about the largely un­known black women whose math­e­mat­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions helped NASA blast rockets into space.

The new au­thor­ship study, pub­lished in the jour­nal Ge­net­ics, found that in the 1970s alone, women rep­re­sented 7 per­cent of the jour­nal’s au­thors (38), and 58.6 per­cent of those thanked at the end (17). Across the full two decades of the study, women rep­re­sented 7.4 per­cent of au­thors (80), and 43.2 per­cent of those ac­knowl­edged at the end (17).

One of the women whose con­tri­bu­tions were ac­knowl­edged at the end was Mar­garet Wu, who was a re­search as­sis­tant in the 1970s do­ing sta­tis­ti­cal pro­gram­ming in the math depart­ment at Aus­tralia’s Monash Uni­ver­sity.

A top stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne, Wu’s un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree was in sta­tis­tics. At Monash, pro­fes­sors ex­plained their re­search projects to her, and she cre­ated the al­go­rithms and found the pa­ram­e­ter es­ti­mates they needed to do their work.

Her job was to sup­port the pro­fes­sors in their cho­sen projects. No one sug­gested that she pur­sue a doc­tor­ate, for which she could have cho­sen her own projects.

“Had some­one sug­gested that I do it, I pos­si­bly would have found that an at­trac­tive idea,” Wu told Rohlfs, who lo­cated Wu and re­cently in­ter­viewed her.

Wu’s sta­tis­tics ap­peared in at least five pa­pers, in­clud­ing two pub­lished in The­o­ret­i­cal Pop­u­la­tion Bi­ol­ogy. One, pub­lished in 1975, has been cited more than 3,300 times and es­tab­lished a “widely used es­ti­ma­tor of ge­netic di­ver­sity” called Watterson’s es­ti­ma­tor, the new study says.

Her con­tri­bu­tion is noted at the end of the pa­per: “I thank Mrs. M. Wu for help with the nu­mer­i­cal work, and in par­tic­u­lar for com­put­ing ta­ble 1.”

Wu even­tu­ally earned a doc­tor­ate, de­vel­oped sta­tis­ti­cal meth­ods of an­a­lyz­ing ed­u­ca­tional data, and is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne.

“I feel an­gry for these women, who should have got­ten more credit. They could have been my gen­er­a­tion’s men­tors,” Rohlfs said. At the same time, “just see­ing that these women ex­ist is like a bea­con. It’s val­i­dat­ing!”

Rohlfs said she in­tends to con­tinue look­ing into the con­tri­bu­tions of such hid­den fig­ures. Her co-au­thors at San Fran­cisco State are Sa­man­tha Kristin Dung, An­drea López, Eze­quiel Lopez Bar­ra­gan, Rochelle-Jan Reyes, Ricky Thu, Edgar Castel­lanos and Fran­cisca Cata­lan.

Co-au­thor Emilia Huer­taSánchez is from UC Merced and Brown Uni­ver­sity.

Hop­per Stone / 20th Cen­tury Fox 2016

Mary Jack­son (Janelle Monáe, left), Kather­ine John­son (Taraji P. Hen­son) and Dorothy Vaughan (Oc­tavia Spencer) are sci­en­tists who work for NASA in the movie “Hid­den Fig­ures.”

San Fran­cisco State Uni­ver­sity

Rori Rohlfs, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at San Fran­cisco State, co-wrote the study on how fe­male sci­en­tists are cred­ited.

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