In a move likely to attract criticism, a peer-reviewed journal has agreed to publish an Italian physicist’s highly contested analysis of publications, which concludes that female physicists don’t face more career obstacles than their male colleagues. The journal says it will also simultaneously publish critiques of the paper, which one member of the journal’s editorial board says is “flawed” and contains “unsubstantiated claims.”
Last year, physicist Alessandro Strumia received widespread criticism after presenting a talk at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, where he was a guest professor. During the presentation, he asserted that physics was built and invented by men, and stated on a slide that “Physics is not sexist against women.” Thousands of physicists signed a letter voicing concerns about Strumia’s views and some researchers published detailed critiques of his findings and methods, which focused on published papers in the field of “fundamental physics” that includes theoretical and experimental studies of fundamental particles, cosmology, and astrophysics. Some of Strumia’s critics have argued that such literature analyses are not sufficient to support his claims. Both CERN and Strumia’s employer, the University of Pisa in Italy, launched investigations. Earlier this year, CERN cut all ties with Strumia and the university released a statement condemning his comments.
The upcoming paper, which Strumia has posted on his website, has been accepted for publication by Quantitative Science Studies (QSS), which publishes “theoretical and empirical research on science and the scientific workforce.” Strumia’s study examines 1.3 million fundamental physics papers, published from 1970 to this year, which are indexed by CERN’s INSPIRE database. After identifying authors as men or women based on their names, the study confirms what Strumia calls a “well known” gender skew in fundamental physics: For every four new male Ph.D.s who publish, there is just one new female Ph.D. Strumia also concludes that male and female physicists have similar opinions about which papers deserve to be cited, and that authors of both genders cite their own studies at similar rates. (That finding diverges from a 2016 analysis, which Strumia cites, that concluded male authors cite their own work on average 56% more than female authors.) Strumia also finds that the publication records, which show institutional affiliations, reveal no statistically significant difference in how quickly men and women are hired after receiving their Ph.D.s, or the rate at which they stop publishing in the field, which Strumia uses as an indicator for when a researcher has left academic research. Strumia notes this finding contradicts other studies that have found that a higher proportion of women drop out of academia than men.
The primary takeaway from his study, Strumia tells ScienceInsider, is that men and women have equal opportunities in fundamental physics, and women don’t necessarily face a more hostile work environment. “This is what comes out from the data,” he says. “I believe [this] because I see this in the data.”
Strumia’s paper is likely, once again, to attract fierce pushback. Ludo Waltman, the editor-in-chief of QSS and an information scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, wrote in an email that he doesn’t yet know how many critiques the journal will publish but said they will “discuss possible weaknesses in the paper or alternative interpretations.” His decision to publish Strumia’s paper “doesn’t necessarily mean that [it] has no weaknesses,” Waltman noted. “As journal editor, I often decide to publish papers that have weaknesses or that contain analyses or statements that a reviewer doesn’t like (or that I don’t like myself).”
One member of the editorial board of QSS, which is published by MIT Press and the International Society for Scientometrics and Informetrics (ISSI), gives Strumia’s paper poor reviews. The study is “methodologically flawed” and “fails to meet the standards of the bibliometric community,” says Cassidy Sugimoto, an information scientist at Indiana University in Bloomington, who has published on gender disparities in science and was asked by ScienceInsider to review Strumia’s paper. The study contains “several unsubstantiated claims,” she says, and doesn’t properly cite or discuss papers that come to conflicting conclusions. “Overall,” Sugimoto says, “the manuscript does not provide a convincing understanding of the literature or the methods, lessening the credibility of the results.”
In an email, Sugimoto wrote that “To maintain the editorial integrity of our journal, the Board of ISSI does not interfere with individual decisions on manuscripts: the Editor-in-Chief assumes full responsibility for editorial decisions.”
Rachel Oliver, a materials scientist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom who has previously raised concerns about Strumia’s work, says, “Despite the very significant amount of effort he has clearly put into this work,” Strumia “certainly hasn’t attempted any analysis of the relevant systemic problems” that might influence gender differences in physics, such as implicit bias or outright harassment.