Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Teamwork in Economics Research: Who Gets Credit?

The ivory towers of academia are not a place to lounge on your laurels.  Rather, professors compete ferociously for the diminishing numbers of jobs with actual benefits and job security, i.e., tenured jobs.  And in that competition being female may work against you, at least according to a new study* which looks at how much credit researchers get for writing articles.

Publications are important, because of the publish-or-perish principle of tenure acquisition.  Heather Sarson's doctoral thesis looks at the impact of gender on how much credit someone in the economics field gets for her or his publications.  What she argues her study shows is this:  Women get less credit for co-authored articles than men, but roughly equal credit for articles they have written alone:

While women in the field publish as much as men, they are twice as likely to perish. And this higher rate for women being denied tenure persists even after accounting for differences in tenure rates across universities, the different subfields of economics that women work in, the quality of their publications and other influences that may have changed over time. 
But Ms. Sarsons discovered one group of female economists who enjoyed the same career success as men: those who work alone. Specifically, she says that “women who solo author everything have roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as a man.” So any gender differences must be because of the differential treatment of men and women who work collaboratively.
The career benefit from publishing a solo paper is about the same for women as it is for men. But unlike women, men also get just as much credit for collaborative research, and there is no statistical difference in the career prospects of authors of individually written papers and those of papers written as part of a research team.
Unfortunately for women, research done with a co-author counts far less. When women write with co-authors, the benefit to their career prospects is much less than half that accorded to men. This really matters, because most economic research is done with co-authors.

What's going on there?  To learn more, Sarsons looked at the possible impact of who you are writing those articles with, and found that what really hurt women was co-authoring only with men.  In those cases the women got essentially no credit  for the article.  Men, on the other hand, received approximately the same credit for co-authored articles independently of the gender of their co-authors.

Justin Wolfers, the author of the NYT piece on the study, suggests that whenever there is ambiguity about how to divide the credit for an article those who are to decide on that division tend to fall back on their (probably subconscious) biases.  He also notes that Sarsons carried out a parallel study in sociology and failed to find any gender effect.  That might be because in sociology the first author listed is the main author of the article, whereas in economics the authors are listed alphabetically.  The former practice gives some help in deciding how much credit to give to someone (more to the first author), the latter leaves that more open.

Finally, this quote from the NYT piece is interesting:

Many female economists have shared with me their experiences of research being taken less seriously simply because it was written by a woman. The great economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has a unique perspective on all of this, having spent the first half of her career as the male economist Donald McCloskey. Today, she reports that it is quite common for her colleagues not to acknowledge a point she has made until it is reinforced by another male economist. That rarely happened when she was Donald.

I was trying to think of alternative theories which would explain Sarsons' findings, such as asking whether the gender of one's co-authors gives a different signal about male and female authors.  Something along the lines that, on average, women in economics are at earlier stages in their careers than men, so perhaps women are more likely than men to co-author with more senior researchers, and senior researcher tend to get more credit.  But Sarsons tests that (p. 24) and finds it not to be the case.

Her findings have wider importance, if similar considerations affect how employers divide the credit for teamwork more generally.  Indeed, the findings may be stronger in areas where there is no choice whether to work in a team or go solo.


This seems to be the working paper on the topic.   Sarsons writes:

While women who solo-author everything have roughly the same
chance of receiving tenure as a man, women who coauthor most of their work have a significantly lower probability of receiving tenure. The penalty is not explained by coauthor selection and is robust to controlling for productivity differences, tenure institution, year of tenure, and field of study.