The case of mixed research teams


Mixed research teams remain largely under-represented in science. At the same time, male-female teams are more likely to produce new and frequently cited research than same-sex teams.

Both findings come from a new study conducted in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article focuses on academic medicine, as its authors started writing it during COVID-19 and academic medicine is a funding giant. But when the authors performed similar analyzes for medical subfields and other scientific fields, their results held.

“We did the same analysis for all the other scientific disciplines – we did it for physics, we did it for chemistry, biology and sociology, and again we find the same fact: the teams mixed perform better than same-sex teams,” said co-author Brian Uzzi, Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “And the more gender balanced in a mixed team, the higher the impact as well.”

How much better? In academic medicine, for example, Uzzi and her own (mixed) team have found that male-female teams publish articles that are up to 7% more original and 15% more likely to be highly cited than articles published by men or women. all-female teams.

While some previous research has compared the scientific results of women and men, Uzzi said, the takeaway from this new study is “We’re actually better together than apart from each other.”

He continued: “When we started this, I was like, ‘What are we going to find? The results will likely be very mixed. But we weren’t sure. And when the results came out – and they were so clear and so systematic – we said, “We really found something.”

For the primary analysis of academic medicine, Uzzi and his team examined 6.6 million articles published in some 15,000 journals worldwide over 20 years. Given the size of their dataset, they used a computer algorithm to determine the gender of the scientists from their name, male or female. (For this reason, the study does not discuss gender diversity beyond men and women.)

In 2000, Uzzi and his colleagues found that about 60% of teams of four included both men and women. In 2019, it was 70%. To see if it was more or less than you might expect based on who was doing the science, the Uzzi team designed a model that randomly swapped male and female authors who had the same first year of publication, total number of publications and country. Based on this model, mixed teams are significantly underrepresented regardless of team size, up to 17% underrepresentation.

Then, to compare the results of mixed and gay teams, Uzzi and his colleagues had to agree on a definition of novelty and find a way to measure it. Guided by previous research, they defined new articles as those that combine knowledge in a new way compared to existing combinations. Part of the way they measured this was to look at the journals referenced in a given article and determine whether those journal pairings were common or unusual.

To measure a paper’s impact, the Uzzi team followed previous research that defined high-impact papers as those in the top 5% of cited citations for papers published in a year. given. (They also factored in the ongoing impact.)

Exclude other factors, underlying mechanisms and caveats

Could something else explain these findings? Guided again by previous research, Uzzi and her team examined whether mixed-gender teams had different levels of expertise, networks, age diversity, and international diversity characteristics compared to same-sex teams. They found that mixed teams are associated with significantly higher diversity of subject-related expertise, larger networks, greater career age diversity, and geographic diversity and internationalism. higher, among other factors. But none of these factors, when controlled, can explain the positive effects of gender diversity. Citation homophilia, or the phenomenon of men citing more articles by men than articles by women and vice versa, did not explain it either.

Gender diversity in teams is ultimately an “underrecognized but powerful correlate of new and impactful scientific findings that increases in magnitude with the gender balance of the team,” the document states.

Why is this so? The paper is somewhat cautious here, saying this is an area for future research. But Uzzi and her colleagues note that existing experimental research suggests that women on a team improve information-sharing processes, such as taking turns talking.

“It may also be that women offer a perspective on research questions that men do not have and vice versa,” the document states, “or it may be that when a team includes both women and men , there are synergies specific to gender diversity teams that are more than the additivity of team processes and information typically associated with all-female and all-male teams.

Many business-focused studies have found that gender diversity makes businesses more productive, but some of these studies have caveats about context and climate. One study, for example, found that gender diversity translates to higher market value and more revenue in countries and industries where gender diversity is “normally accepted.”

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation, said via email Monday that “in terms of the impact of highly skilled women on innovation – in medical research and elsewhere – the secret sauce is the sponsorship, not representation”. Citing research in his book The sponsor effect: how to be a better leader by investing in others (Harvard Business Review, 2019), Hewlett stated that “When a woman’s value is recognized and invested in by a top man, he is much more likely – 19% more likely – to find value in her ideas , give it a seat at the decision-making tables, and fund its projects. (Hewlett was talking business, but his research can also provide insight into how some research teams form and function.)

Uzzi said the downside of studying millions of papers in total is that he and his team couldn’t dig deep into how those teams actually work. But he said the conditions under which mixed teams succeed most likely overlap with those “that make any science team work, which is a sense of equality and openness and the adoption of ideas new and different.


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