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Overemphasis on publications may disadvantage historically excluded groups in STEM before and during COVID-19: A North American survey-based study

Rowland et al. / PLOS One / Sep 27, 2023


Publishing is a strong determinant of academic success and there is compelling evidence that identity may influence the academic writing experience and writing output. However, studies rarely quantitatively assess the effects of major life upheavals on trainee writing. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced unprecedented life disruptions that may have disproportionately impacted different demographics of trainees. The authors analyzed anonymous survey responses from 342 North American environmental biology graduate students and postdoctoral scholars (hereafter trainees) about scientific writing experiences to assess: (1) how identity interacts with scholarly publication totals and (2) how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced trainee perceptions of scholarly writing productivity and whether there were differences among identities. Interestingly, identity had a strong influence on publication totals, but it differed by career stage with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars often having opposite results. The authors found that trainees identifying as female and those with chronic health conditions or disabilities lag in publication output at some point during training. Additionally, although trainees felt they had more time during the pandemic to write, they reported less productivity and motivation. Trainees who identified as female; Black, Indigenous, or as a Person of Color [BIPOC]; and as first-generation college graduates were much more likely to indicate that the pandemic affected their writing. Disparities in the pandemic’s impact on writing were most pronounced for BIPOC respondents; a striking 85% of BIPOC trainees reported that the pandemic affected their writing habits, and overwhelmingly felt unproductive and unmotivated to write. The authors' results suggest that the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on writing output may only heighten the negative effects commonly reported amongst historically excluded trainees. Based on our findings, the authors encourage the academy to consider how an overemphasis on publication output during hiring may affect historically excluded groups in STEM—especially in a post-COVID-19 era.

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