Gender Disparity in the Authorship of Biomedical Research Publications During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Retrospective Observational Study

J Med Internet Res. 2021 Apr 12;23(4):e25379. doi: 10.2196/25379.


Background: Gender imbalances in academia have been evident historically and persist today. For the past 60 years, we have witnessed the increase of participation of women in biomedical disciplines, showing that the gender gap is shrinking. However, preliminary evidence suggests that women, including female researchers, are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of unequal distribution of childcare, elderly care, and other kinds of domestic and emotional labor. Sudden lockdowns and abrupt shifts in daily routines have had disproportionate consequences on their productivity, which is reflected by a sudden drop in research output in biomedical research, consequently affecting the number of female authors of scientific publications.

Objective: The objective of this study is to test the hypothesis that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate adverse effect on the productivity of female researchers in the biomedical field in terms of authorship of scientific publications.

Methods: This is a retrospective observational bibliometric study. We investigated the proportion of male and female researchers who published scientific papers during the COVID-19 pandemic, using bibliometric data from biomedical preprint servers and selected Springer-Nature journals. We used the ordinary least squares regression model to estimate the expected proportions over time by correcting for temporal trends. We also used a set of statistical methods, such as the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test and regression discontinuity design, to test the validity of the results.

Results: A total of 78,950 papers from the bioRxiv and medRxiv repositories and from 62 selected Springer-Nature journals by 346,354 unique authors were analyzed. The acquired data set consisted of papers that were published between January 1, 2019, and August 2, 2020. The proportion of female first authors publishing in the biomedical field during the pandemic dropped by 9.1%, on average, across disciplines (expected arithmetic mean yest=0.39; observed arithmetic mean y=0.35; standard error of the estimate, Sest=0.007; standard error of the observation, σx=0.004). The impact was particularly pronounced for papers related to COVID-19 research, where the proportion of female scientists in the first author position dropped by 28% (yest=0.39; y=0.28; Sest=0.007; σx=0.007). When looking at the last authors, the proportion of women dropped by 7.9%, on average (yest=0.25; y=0.23; Sest=0.005; σx=0.003), while the proportion of women writing about COVID-19 as the last author decreased by 18.8% (yest=0.25; y=0.21; Sest=0.005; σx=0.007). Further, by geocoding authors' affiliations, we showed that the gender disparities became even more apparent when disaggregated by country, up to 35% in some cases.

Conclusions: Our findings document a decrease in the number of publications by female authors in the biomedical field during the global pandemic. This effect was particularly pronounced for papers related to COVID-19, indicating that women are producing fewer publications related to COVID-19 research. This sudden increase in the gender gap was persistent across the 10 countries with the highest number of researchers. These results should be used to inform the scientific community of this worrying trend in COVID-19 research and the disproportionate effect that the pandemic has had on female academics.

Keywords: COVID-19; gender disparities; research evaluation; science of science.

MeSH terms

  • Authorship*
  • Bibliometrics*
  • Biomedical Research / statistics & numerical data*
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Efficiency
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pandemics
  • Publishing / statistics & numerical data*
  • Research Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sex Distribution*
  • Sex Factors