A reproducible effect: failing to credit women scientists for their leadership.

Lenny Teytelman Mar 04, 2017

There is no shortage of historic examples of women scientists not getting the credit they deserve due to sexism (a few of the countless examples). This is so pervasive, there is actually a name for this, The Matilda Effect, and papers like this have been published about it.

While we all know about this, it’s been shocking for me to personally watch this unfold in the case of Dr. Elizabeth Iorns, the key person behind the Reproducibility Project Cancer Biology (RPCB). As we learn from RPCB that reproducing cancer research is extraordinarily hard, we also get a demonstration of just how strong and reproducible the Matilda Effect still is.

As a cancer researcher, Dr. Iorns had personal painful experiences, trying to replicate published work. Later, as the CEO of ScienceExchange, she noticed that many scientists were asking for validation of cancer research results. This inspired Dr. Iorns to start the Reproducibility Initiative in 2012, in partnership with PLOS and figshare. As a next step in 2013, Dr. Iorns collaborated with Dr. William Gunn to put together a proposal for a major study of reproducibility in cancer research. Together, they brought in Dr. Brian Nosek of the Center for Open Science to collaboratively apply for a grant on RPCB.

A few weeks ago, the first results from RPCB were published, with extensive coverage by major news outlets. I was stunned to see just how many of them minimized or entirely ignored the role of Dr. Iorns.

I went through the January articles covering RPCB, and half of them fail to mention the role of Dr. Iorns altogether, quoting and mentioning only Dr. Nosek. Two others, Gizmodo and Wired mention both, but erroneously credit Dr. Nosek with the RPCB idea. Dr. Nosek even publicly corrected the Wired article:


The history of RPCB is not a secret. Some journalists like Ed Yong in The Atlantic got it exactly right, but Ed Yong is in the rare minority here.


I know all of the people involved with RPCB personally. I like all of them. I doubt that Dr. Nosek intentionally tried to hog the spotlight, at the expense of Dr. Iorns, nor do the journalists have an agenda to minimize women's contributions. That’s probably the hardest part of the Matilda Effect – it happens automatically, without an explicit nefarious attempt by someone to introduce bias. We all have to be aware of this and have to try extra hard to avoid erasing the contributions of women.