Let’s Get Together: Collaboration patterns vary between male and female scientists

Let’s Get Together: Collaboration patterns vary between male and female scientists

Collaboration is increasingly important in science, but few studies have investigated how female and male researchers in various scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical disciplines differ in how they collaborate.

Luis AmaralIn a new study, Luís Amaral, professor and co-director of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems at Northwestern University, USA, and colleagues analyzed the publication records of almost 4,000 researchers and found that collaboration patterns differed significantly between males and females. To learn more about the study and the significance of its results, I interviewed Dr. Amaral via email.


What drew you to study complex biological and social systems, especially given that you trained as a physicist?

LA: I have always been curious about different disciplines. As a kid, I was attracted to the way that physics dealt with everything from atoms to the entire universe. It was very exciting for me to later apply modelling tools and quantitative approaches from physics, statistics and computer science to complex biological and social systems.

How did you then get interested in gender issues in science?

LA: Growing up, I was aware that my mother was very smart, but her studies had been limited by lack of money. She’d had to work on farms to save money to buy her school books herself, and was later limited to becoming a homemaker because she never got a fourth grade degree. It felt so wasteful of her talents. So I was aware of the discrimination that females experience in a male-dominated working world. When I talked to Teresa [Woodruff, co-author on the paper] about the data my lab had gathered, she was excited that we could use it to study gender issues in science.

What brought you to the U.S. from Portugal, and what differences have you observed between the research environments of both countries?

LA: As a kid growing up in Portugal, the U.S. was a sort of “promised land,” where all the great scientists were working and winning Nobel Prizes. So I decided that I would go to the U.S. to get a Ph.D. even before I understood what it was! Even though my eyes are now open to the challenges of doing research in the U.S., the reality is that the conditions and mentality here are worlds apart from those in Portugal. In the U.S., there are over 100 research universities – in Portugal there are only a handful.

Tell me about your most recent paper. Did any findings surprise you?

LA: In research published in 2005 with Roger Guimera and Brian Uzzi, we showed that teams that involve new collaborations have a greater likelihood of producing high-impact research. However, new collaborations involve risks and costs – for example, the working styles of new collaborators may be incompatible – so it was interesting that our analysis suggests that female scientists are more willing to take these risks. We also found that gender balance varies between fields. One of our most surprising results was how significantly female scientists are underrepresented in large genomics collaborations. This could be an indicator of a negative culture in the field of genomics.

To what extent do you believe science is, or should be, a collaborative endeavour, and why is it important to understand scientific collaboration?

LA: Science is increasingly a collaborative endeavour. Personally, I really enjoy working as part of a team: I love to learn from my collaborators and love to share what I know. By looking at the collaboration process objectively through the tools of scientific inquiry, we can learn what works and what does not.

What impact do you hope your study might have, and what are the next steps for your research?

LA: Without monitoring of the numbers, really unfair situations can develop. For example, various studies demonstrated that female faculty were being short-changed in terms of lab space and start-up packages at MIT and other institutions. Females are not the only underrepresented group in science, and in future, we would like to collect data to assess the status of all underrepresented groups. Studies like ours will enable decision-makers to obtain data, empowering them to monitor how fair the business of science is for such underrepresented groups.


Research Article: Zeng XHT, Duch J, Sales-Pardo M, Moreira JAG, Radicchi F, Ribeiro HV, et al. (2016) Differences in Collaboration Patterns across Discipline, Career Stage, and Gender. PLoS Biol 14(11): e1002573. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1002573

Images Credits: Luís Amaral; Roland Roberts, and Steven Valkenberg, Flickr


Beth works at PLOS as Journal Media Manager. She read Natural Sciences, specializing in Pathology, at the University of Cambridge before joining PLOS in 2013. She feels fortunate to be able to read and write about the exciting new research published by PLOS.

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