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Robert Neubecker

Researchers retract controversial female mentorship paper

The authors of a Nature Communications study that suggested female scientists who have female mentors have worse career outcomes, provoking social media outrage and criticism of their methods, have retracted the paper. The move comes 1 month after journal editors announced they were launching a “priority” investigation of that paper, Retraction Watch reports today.

The study, published on 17 November by researchers from New York University, Abu Dhabi, combed through more than 200 million scientific papers to identify several million mentor-mentee pairs, then tracked their co-authorships and citation records to evaluate the impact of mentorship. Their conclusions, including a finding that “current diversity policies promoting female-female mentorships, as well-intended as they may be, could hinder the careers of women,” angered many researchers. Critics attacked both the study’s conclusions and the methods used to reach them.

In a retraction notice published today, the authors wrote that they recognized the validity of some of the complaints, including concerns about “the use of co-authorship as a measure of mentorship.” The authors added that although they “believe that all the key findings of the paper with regards to co-authorship between junior and senior researchers are still valid,” they “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.”

Nature Communications itself weighed in. “In an editorial accompanying the retraction, the editors argue that this was not a case of retracting a paper just because some found distasteful, but that there were serious issues in the methods,” Retraction Watch reports.

The editors also wrote that they had “reviewed our editorial practices and policies and, in the past few weeks, have developed additional internal guidelines, and updated information for authors on how we approach this type of paper. As part of these guidelines, we recognise that it is essential to ensure that such studies are considered from multiple perspectives including from groups concerned by the findings. We believe that this will help us ensure that the review process takes into account the dimension of potential harm, and that claims are moderated by a consideration of limitations when conclusions have potential policy implications.”