Nature Communications Looking Into Paper on Mentorship After Strong Negative Reaction

Retraction Watch Staff

November 23, 2020

A Nature journal has announced that it is conducting a "priority" investigation into a new paper claiming that women in science fare better with male rather than female mentors.

The article, "The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance," appeared in Nature Communications on November 17, and was written by a trio of authors from New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi.

According to the abstract:

increasing the proportion of female mentors is associated not only with a reduction in post-mentorship impact of female protégés, but also a reduction in the gain of female mentors. While current diversity policies encourage same-gender mentorships to retain women in academia, our findings raise the possibility that opposite-gender mentorship may actually increase the impact of women who pursue a scientific career. These findings add a new perspective to the policy debate on how to best elevate the status of women in science.

The paper — which shares at least a zip code with the kind of objectionable material publishers have been taking recent pains to purge from their pages — drew immediate flak on Twitter, where commenters like Joshua Miller, of the University of Alberta, expressed a mix of anger and disappointment at the research and the journal.

Oana Carja, of Carnegie Mellon, wrote:

Daniela Witten, a biostatistician at the University of Washington, wrote:

And Leslie Vosshall, of the Rockefeller University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, posted a link to an open letter to the journal stating that Nature Communications has an "ethical duty" to retract the article.

Nature Communications reacted quickly — by journal standards — tweeting on November 19 that:

The journal had also posted peer reviewer comments, which show that the authors were cautioned about their having initially imputed causality to their findings, that their definition of a mentor-mentee relationship based on co-authorship might be flawed, and other shortcomings of the manuscript.

As one reviewer wrote:

The authors would be on more solid ground if they just referred to their analysis as the benefits to junior faculty from working on teams of junior and senior faculty. This would make the analysis closer to Li et al. (2018) and the Guimera (2005) analysis of "newcomers" and "incumbents" but the analysis would still be original in scope and scale and in an emphasis on how the success of junior authors is associated with teamwork between junior and senior faculty. (BTW: This change would require a complete change in title.)

However, one of the four reviewers declared:

This is a well done paper. The findings are not terribly surprising, but the analysis is unusually exhaustive. …

Neither of two corresponding authors of the paper, Bedoor Al Shelbi and Talal Rahwan, immediately responded to a request for comment.


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