Nature Communications Retracts Much-Criticized Paper on Mentorship

Retraction Watch Staff

December 21, 2020

A month after announcing it would conduct a "priority" investigation into November 17 paper that claimed women in science fare better with male rather than female mentors, Nature Communications has retracted the article.

In the article, "The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance," the authors — a trio from New York University's campus in Abu Dhabi — write that "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." It drew nearly immediate criticism, for example:

On November 19, the journal added an editor's note saying it would be looking into these criticisms, and today, the article was retracted following review by three experts. The retraction notice reads, in part:

In this Article, we analysed publication records to identify pairs of junior and senior researchers working in the same discipline, at the same institution, who are co-authors on papers with no more than 20 authors. We use co-authorship, as defined above, as a proxy of mentorship by senior researchers, with the support of a survey that was targeted at a random sample of a recent cohort of researchers. We measure the quality of mentorship using the number of citations and the connectedness of the senior investigators.


The three independent experts commented on the validity of the approaches and the soundness of the interpretation in the Article. They supported previous criticisms in relation to the use of co-authorship as a measure of mentorship. Thus, any conclusions that might be drawn on biases in citations in the context of co-authorship cannot be extended to informal academic mentorship. The experts also noted that the operationalisation of mentorship quality was not validated in the paper.

The authors, all of whom write that they agree with the retraction, continue:

Although we believe that all the key findings of the paper with regards to co-authorship between junior and senior researchers are still valid, given the issues identified by reviewers about the validation of key measures, we have concluded that the most appropriate course of action is to retract the Article.

We are an interdisciplinary team of scientists with an unwavering commitment to gender equity, and a dedication to scientific integrity. Our work was designed to understand factors that influence the scientific impact of those who advance in research careers. We feel deep regret that the publication of our research has both caused pain on an individual level and triggered such a profound response among many in the scientific community. Many women have personally been extremely influential in our own careers, and we express our steadfast solidarity with and support of the countless women who have been a driving force in scientific advancement. We hope the academic debate continues on how to achieve true equity in science–a debate that thrives on robust and vivid scientific exchange.

In an editorial accompanying the retraction, the editors argue that this was not a case of retracting a paper just because some found it distasteful, but that there were serious issues in the methods (a larger issue we took up in September in WIRED):

Simply being uncomfortable with the conclusions of a published paper, would and should not lead to retraction on this basis alone. If the research question is important, and the conclusions sound and valid, however controversial, there can be merit in sharing them with the research community so that a debate can ensue and a range of possible solutions be proposed. In this case, the conclusions turned out not to be supported, and we apologise to the research community for any unintended harm derived from the publication of this paper.


The editors also say that they "have developed additional internal guidelines, and updated information for authors on how we approach this type of paper" and that, along with Sense about Science, as part of a dedication to diversity and inclusion in research, they have "launched as a pilot a peer review programme for early career researchers, consisting of a webinar and a hands-on phase which we plan to extend next year."


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