Salk Institute Defends Itself Against Sexism by Invoking a Sexist Metric

Scientific journals are not bastions of meritocracy and shouldn’t be treated as such.

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There’s a big problem with using journal publications to justify not promoting women.

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Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine solidified his place in the hallowed halls of science. Lost in his shadow was the research of two women, Dorothy Horstmann and Isabel Morgan, who pioneered research on polio vaccines years before. Sixty-four years later, the institute named for him is currently facing three lawsuits for sexual discrimination and defending itself with an argument that actually just exposes the institutional sexism women in the sciences have dealt with for decades.

Vicki Lundblad and Katherine Jones filed separate lawsuits alleging that the Salk Institute has fostered an “old boys club,” creating a hostile work environment. They cited being prevented from using a grant established for women and forced to downsize their labs. Two weeks later, Beverly Emerson filed a suit alleging that not only has the institute fostered a hostile work environment but that it ignored internal reports proving that women endured slower promotion rates and discriminatory hiring.

The Salk Institute has denied the allegations and all three cases are still ongoing. As reported by Science magazine, the Institute claimed in its response to the original two allegations that Lunblad and Jones “consistently rank below her peers in producing high quality research.”

One of their justifications—that neither had had been published in a prestigious journal such as Science or Nature in 10 years—deserves a double take. For one thing, the number of papers a scientist publishes in prestigious journals is a wildly flawed metric for assessing quality, better suited to gauging the trendiness of their research than its rigor—that’s one of the lessons of the ongoing replication crisis.

But more to the point, women also face additional hurdles and barriers when it comes to being published in prestigious journals. On the whole, women are less likely to hold senior research positions or conduct research at prestigious institutions, making it harder to publish in more top journals. There have also been worrisome cases of sexism exhibited within the journal publishing system—as one Public Library of Science reviewer proved in 2015 with his suggestion that two women needed a male author to bolster their work

The obstacles women face vary from field to field. Female geophysicists are underrepresented among reviewers. Women are underrepresented among top political science, astronomy, and gastroenterology journals. Scientists’ work is also often evaluated by their papers’ citations—yet, male researchers self-cite more. Women, meanwhile, get fewer citations for research that is published in more prestigious journals—particularly in engineering and astronomy. Scientists are also evaluated by how often they are the lead or last author (the latter usually indicating seniority) of a paper. Granted, women are increasingly cinching lead author positions but are still underrepresented among papers’ last, senior, authors.

But to argue against charges of sexism using a system that is understood to be flawed and biased is just a sad indication of the uphill battle many women in the sciences still face.