Keep calm and write

The number of academic publications is peaking due to the coronavirus. But not everyone can get round to writing at home. A gender difference is looming.
Illustration: Yvonne Kroese

Entomologist Rob van Tol (Biointeractions and Plant Health) is having a good year. He has never produced so many publications – seven so far this year, six articles and a chapter. ‘And three of those articles are certainly down to the coronavirus,’ he says. Meaning that normally, he wouldn’t have found time for them because he would have been busy developing insect traps based on light. ‘To write an article, you need to be able to focus,’ explains Van Tol. ‘One of the articles is about work I did in the period 2008- 2016, and it got shelved. So I gathered up the data again and used it all for a single article. That involves a mountain of reading that keeps you busy for weeks. You don’t normally have a run of time like that.’

Pros and cons

A quick round of Wageningen editors of academic journals reveals that Van Tol is not the only person who suddenly has plenty of time to write, thanks to the corona crisis. Soil biologist Jan Willem van Groenigen (Geoderma) reports an increase in submitted articles of 20-25 per cent. ‘Some of that increase is due to the coronavirus. I would guess, roughly half. The rest is just the normal expansion the journal is going through.’ Sociologist Robert Fletcher (Geoforum) has seen an increase of 20 per cent compared with last year. Food scientist Vincenzo Fogliano (Journal of Functional Foods) talks of an ‘explosion’, without mentioning any precise figures. ‘It’s partly a matter of juggling with time: those articles would have been written anyway. But there are definitely also papers that wouldn’t have been written if it weren’t for the corona crisis. So that’s a positive consequence of the pandemic.’ Wageningen Academic Publishers reports a 30 per cent increase in articles for some journals in the first four months of this year.

But not everyone finds time to write articles at home. Women write less at home than men, shows an article in The Lily, the Washington Post’s online medium by and for women. Jan Willem van Groenigen read the piece and found it hard to believe. So last weekend he took a look at the data from his journal Geoderma. He compared 125 articles submitted in April with 125 articles submitted exactly a year earlier. He recorded the sex of the first and corresponding authors of each article. A devilish job, because for privacy reasons, the sex of authors is not routinely documented. ‘And with Chinese names especially, it is difficult to find out if it’s a man or a woman.’ Relying heavily on Google, Van Groenigen figured out that the proportion of female first authors had gone down from 38 to 32 per cent. The number of corresponding authors fell similarly. These are not shocking figures. But the picture changes if you zoom in.

 The proportion of female first authors has dropped dramatically 

’Nearly half of our articles come from China,’ says Van Groenigen, ‘where the pandemic peaked earlier.’ Focusing on the sub-group of European and North American articles provided a clearer picture. ‘The contrast was much bigger. The proportion of female first authors turned out to have dropped from 48 to 26 per cent. And the proportion of female corresponding authors from 41 to 17 per cent.’

The other Wageningen journal editors cannot confirm this picture, mainly because they do not have the relevant data to hand and it would be a big job to collect them, as Van Groenigen did. Plant physiologist Henk Hilhorst (Seed Science Research) does have figures, but they do not show a significant gender effect. The proportion of female first authors went down from 43 to 38 per cent between late 2019 and early 2020. According to plant scientist Paul Struik (Potato Research), the number of manuscripts submitted since the lockdown started is too small to see any gender-related changes.

Van Groenigen is cautious about explaining the figures he found. Traditional role divisions could be a cause of the gender effect. ‘But age plays a role as well. It makes a big difference whether you are working at home with young children around you or not. I looked specifically at the first authors, many of whom are PhD students, so they are young.’ Van Groenigen knows what he is talking about, as he has a five-month-old daughter himself. ‘My mother-in-law just picked up the baby. She is invaluable; no work would get done without her.’

Young fathers

Besides gender and age, how much teaching people do plays a big role too, says Van Groenigen. ‘Teaching is far more timeconsuming now than usual. Suddenly, everything has to be done differently and you’ve got to learn how to do it all too.’ WUR professor Turnhout mentions this too. ‘Teaching and supervising PhD students take priority over research. I do think there is a gender and age pattern to how the corona crisis affects the working day in homes. I think you can safely say that the current situation is more likely to increase inequality than to decrease it.’ Van Groenigen thinks the corona crisis should be taken into account in people’s annual evaluations this year. ‘Some people are more disadvantaged by the corona crisis than others. And there’s more to that than gender alone. Young fathers are extra affected by the corona crisis too. But I’m not at all biased when I say that, of course,’ he laughs. ‘In the evaluation for tenure track, say, you could ask people how the crisis has affected their work.’

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