Breaking the old boys’ club: Battling systemic bias in academic science

By John Notarianni (OPB)
July 11, 2021 1 p.m.

Oregon State University’s Ana K. Spalding on how systemic biases thrive in the science academy — and how to fix them.

The social justice uprising of the last year has led to a lot of conversations about the ways marginalized groups are often excluded. It’s not always because of conscious prejudice: often, built-in systems and cultures limit the opportunities for women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and others.


It’s a conversation that’s been burning in university science departments across the country since last year when the journal Nature Communications published a study that suggested the careers of STEM students are impacted negatively when they’re mentored by women.

The paper faced an immediate backlash from scientists across the world. It was ultimately retracted, but a group of women in science felt there was more to say about the ways the science academy reinforces and perpetuates biases against under-represented groups in their field. The 24 co-authors published a new paper was issued last month in the journal PLOS Biology: “Promoting inclusive metrics of success and impact to dismantle a discriminatory reward system in science.”

Ana K. Spalding is an Assistant Professor of Marine and Coastal Policy at OSU.

Ana K. Spalding is an Assistant Professor of Marine and Coastal Policy at OSU.

Courtesy of Ana K. Spalding

One of the paper’s co-authors is Ana K. Spalding. She’s an assistant professor of marine and coastal policy at Oregon State University.

Spalding recently talked with OPB’s John Notarianni about the paper, the systemic injustices that the science academy needs to address, and her own experiences of bias in her career.

John Notarianni: Science prides itself on being quantifiable, but in this paper, you show how the very metrics of success in science often are inherently biased. For those of us who aren’t in academia, can you walk us through how academic citations work — and how that system is inherently racist and sexist?

Ana K. Spalding: Our currency as academics is our papers and citations. So, our “value,” quote-unquote, is acknowledged in terms of how many papers we have; how many people cite our papers. Think about citations as recognition; as “likes” on Instagram.

Effectively, it is the way in which our work is seen in the world — and by the world, I mean the world of academics.

Notarianni: That seems straightforward enough. But what’s wrong with that system?

Spalding: Well, the problem with that system is there is evidence that white males tend to cite themselves and their friends or colleagues more, so academia has systematically excluded people of color and women.

Examples of systematic exclusion include women during childbearing years, for instance, in which activities or collaborations occur outside of the normal work hours. If you’re raising your children or you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you’re not able to attend these sorts of after-hour meetings and events.

So, it’s just a system that perpetuates the collaborations within certain groups of people and, therefore, citations within those same groups of people.

Notarianni: And in your paper, you note how these systems are also self-perpetuating, right? Basically, the system prioritizes cisgender white men who then end up going on to become the ones to make decisions that affect the careers of the next generation of scientists, right?

Spalding: Absolutely.

Notarianni: You’re a tenured professor at Oregon State. You identify as a black woman, and that makes you only the fourth tenured black woman at OSU out of 839 tenured faculty members, by your account. I’m wondering how have you encountered these biases in your career?

Spalding: Oh, this is a great question. It’s interesting because it’s my life and my story, so I don’t see myself as “the fourth.” But, when you look at those numbers, I think, OK, wow: that is impactful.

Particular experiences have been, for instance, in the classroom, things like students questioning whether I have the expertise; or students — typically male — volunteering recommendations on ways I can improve my teaching and things like that.

Other examples are being the only person of color in a room, and how whether or not I feel comfortable in that context. Again, these are things that I hadn’t really thought about unless you speak to other people like you, of which there are not that many in academia. You think it’s normal. So, it was through conversations with other people that I realized that that was not the norm; that I was actually working twice as hard to get that validation, that recognition.

Notarianni: One of the things that you focus on in this paper is the importance of mentorships in the careers of young scientists. But it also points out that traditional mentorships can perpetuate some of these problems; that students who find themselves in a toxic or non-supportive relationship with a mentor often don’t really have much recourse in academia.


And you bring up this idea of multidimensional mentorship. What does that look like and why is that so important?

Spalding: It is super important from the perspective of representation. On the one hand, if there are only four tenured black women at OSU, how can we expect graduate students — black women or generally people of color — to feel represented?

Another element, I think, is it would be inclusive of all the interests of the students. As we talked about already in perpetuating a cycle, people tend to train the mentees — graduate students, undergraduate students — in our same image.

However, that doesn’t necessarily work. The next generation is really interested in looking at opportunities to have impact. It’s not just in terms of the number of citations, but in actually changing the world.

So, multidimensional mentoring requires recognizing the student — their student interests and their student needs — recognizing their identity and who they are, who they want to be, and being able to say, “you know what? I can’t help you with this, but I have a colleague, somebody who can.”

It’s not all about me as the mentor, as a shining star; it’s about the students.

Notarianni: It’s also worth pointing out that there are plenty of people who are doing this mentoring work right now. But you advocate that it’s really important that the entire institution really supports this process, right?

Spalding: Yes, absolutely. Part of the idea of building a multidimensional mentorship model is that the onus is not just on the faculty members who engage in this; it’s part of an institutional, systematic change that needs to happen and needs to be supported at the highest levels of academic leadership.

That can include presidents, provosts, chancellors of university systems, both in public and private institutions, in order to support this — which could be called a radical change in the way in which we train the next generation of academics.

Notarianni: You advocate for expanding the way that the academy thinks about scientific impact: that it’s not just citations, but a much broader field of impacts that this work has. What would that look like?

Spalding: In the tenure system and having recently gone through it — I’m a newly-minted tenured professor — we have our position descriptions that include research, teaching and service, for the most part. Within the narrow definitions of what the research, teaching and service include are where I think the problem lies.

The impact we have caring for students is not just in terms of getting them through the program, but all the other elements of multidimensional mentorship that I mentioned.

Other impacts include things that working with agencies, working with policymakers, working in science communication, working in K-through-12 education: all of what they call the “broader impacts” of our research and the time that it takes to work towards those things is not always quantified or evaluated within the scope of our position descriptions.

Notarianni: Well, if science academia were to take up some of these changes that you’re proposing — to broaden how the academy measures impact and re-envisioning mentorship — how do you think the careers of marginalized students might change?

Spalding: I think it would be a much more welcoming space. It would be a much more open place for curiosity.

I think our ability to think differently about the problems and potential solutions to some of the grand challenges of our time would be … the opportunity for that would be so much larger and broader as we would actually be directly reflecting the experiences of marginalized students and communities: just different ways of thinking.

It would be a much nicer place for me and for the coming generation as well.

Notarianni: If I could ask you to think even more broadly, what impact do you think that might have on the broader world beyond the academy?

Spalding: I mean, ideally, it would be a much more just and equitable place.

Again, we would find solutions not for the few, but for the people who are actually the most vulnerable to things like climate change and other environmental changes.

My area of research is the environment, so I focus on that, but it could broaden into social policies and global concerns: really thinking about the places that matter, the people that matter and finding solutions that are tailored to those people and places.

It would enable and empower a different set of people within our global human community.

Listen to Ana K. Spalding’s full conversation with OPB’s John Notarianni using the audio player above.