On December 15, 2020, the WiPB sent the following letter (by email) to Dr. Elisa De Ranieri, editor in chief of Nature Communications. The article was later retracted by the journal on December 21.

Dear Dr. De Ranieri:

We write to express our concern about the recent study published in your journal that implied that female mentors negatively impact the scientific careers of their mentees . These strong conclusions have generated heavy criticisms in the scientific community. We appreciate that Nature Communications has placed a warning on the article site indicating that editors are currently evaluating current criticisms. 

As other reports, the study analyzed the relationship between the ‘success’ of senior co-authors and the success of junior co-authors in scientific publications. ‘Success’ was quantified as the number of publications and citations. However, by also analyzing the relationship between the gender of senior co-authors and the junior co-author’s success the authors reached the conclusion that ‘female mentorship’ has a negative impact on the future career of junior co-authors.

The reviewers of the manuscript indicated key flaws in the study that don’t seem to have been addressed after two rounds of revision.  Critically, the study implies causal relationships from regression analysis, always describing their correlations as indicating an ‘impact’. The authors also did not take into account any of the factors that negatively impact the career of female scientists, including institutionalized bias, when analyzing and interpreting their results. Finally, the authors directly imply a mentorship relationship from co-authorship. 

Interestingly, although the main focus of the abstract and the discussion of the paper is on the gender differences of ‘mentoring’ outcomes, only one of the reviewers mentioned that bias might be an important factor in their gender related correlations. We therefore, urge you to ensure that a diverse group of reviewers provide feedback on manuscripts.

We believe it is important that we strive towards understanding which are the biases and challenges that female scientists face and how they can be reduced. 

Eva M. Farre

Aruna Kilaru

Sabrina Chin

Katherine M. Murphy

Sibongile Mafu

Jenny Mortimer


Women in Plant Biology Committee

American Society of Plant Biologists