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Research Christmas 2019: Sweet Little Lies

Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study

BMJ 2019; 367 doi: (Published 16 December 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;367:l6573

Linked Editorial

Gender differences in research reporting

  1. Marc J Lerchenmueller, assistant professor1 2,
  2. Olav Sorenson, Frederick Frank ’54 and Mary C Tanner professor of management2,
  3. Anupam B Jena, Ruth L. Newhouse associate professor3
  1. 1University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany
  2. 2Yale University, School of Management, New Haven, CT, USA
  3. 3Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA; Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA, USA; and National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, USA
  1. Correspondence to: M J Lerchenmueller marc.lerchenmueller{at} (or @MLerchenmueller on Twitter)
  • Accepted 11 November 2019


Objectives Women remain underrepresented on faculties of medicine and the life sciences more broadly. Whether gender differences in self presentation of clinical research exist and may contribute to this gender gap has been challenging to explore empirically. The objective of this study was to analyze whether men and women differ in how positively they frame their research findings and to analyze whether the positive framing of research is associated with higher downstream citations.

Design Retrospective observational study.

Data sources Titles and abstracts from 101 720 clinical research articles and approximately 6.2 million general life science articles indexed in PubMed and published between 2002 and 2017.

Main outcome measures Analysis of article titles and abstracts to determine whether men and women differ in how positively they present their research through use of terms such as “novel” or “excellent.” For a set of 25 positive terms, we estimated the relative probability of positive framing as a function of the gender composition of the first and last authors, adjusting for scientific journal, year of publication, journal impact, and scientific field.

Results Articles in which both the first and last author were women used at least one of the 25 positive terms in 10.9% of titles or abstracts versus 12.2% for articles involving a male first or last author, corresponding to a 12.3% relative difference (95% CI 5.7% to 18.9%). Gender differences in positive presentation were greatest in high impact clinical journals (impact factor >10), in which women were 21.4% less likely to present research positively. Across all clinical journals, positive presentation was associated with 9.4% (6.6% to 12.2%) higher subsequent citations, and in high impact clinical journals 13.0% (9.5% to 16.5%) higher citations. Results were similar when broadened to general life science articles published in journals indexed by PubMed, suggesting that gender differences in positive word use generalize to broader samples.

Conclusions Clinical articles involving a male first or last author were more likely to present research findings positively in titles and abstracts compared with articles in which both the first and last author were women, particularly in the highest impact journals. Positive presentation of research findings was associated with higher downstream citations.


  • Contributors: All authors contributed to the design and conduct of the study, data collection and management, analysis and interpretation of the data; and preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript. ABJ supervised the study and is the guarantor. The corresponding author attests that all listed authors meet authorship criteria and that no others meeting the criteria have been omitted.

  • Competing interests: All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare: external funding support from the Office of the Director, NIH (1DP5OD017897) to ABJ, from the German Research Foundation (DFG grant LE 3426/1-2) to MJL, and from Yale University’s Initiative on Leadership and Organisation to MJL and OS; no financial relationships with any organizations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous 3 years; and no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work. ABJ received consulting fees unrelated to this work from Pfizer, Hill Rom Services, Bristol Myers Squibb, Novartis, Amgen, Eli Lilly, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca, Celgene, Tesaro, Sanofi Aventis, Biogen, Precision Health Economics, and Analysis Group. MJL is a co-founder and shareholder of AaviGen GmbH.

  • Funding: The research conducted was independent of any involvement from the sponsor of the study. The study sponsor was not involved in study design, data interpretation, writing, or the decision to submit the article for publication. The authors acknowledge research assistance by Leo Schmallenbach as well as support by the German state of Baden-Württemberg through bwHPC—high performance cluster computing resources.

  • Ethical approval: Not required.

  • Transparency: ABJ affirms that the manuscript is an honest, accurate, and transparent account of the study being reported; that no important aspects of the study have been omitted; and that any discrepancies are disclosed.

  • Data sharing: The data and analytic methods will be available to other researchers for purposes of reproducing the results or replicating the procedure from Harvard Dataverse at

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