Redefining ‘Success’ in Science Can Help Fight Climate Change

Beyond Citations and Publications, Value Mentorship and DEI

Woman in NASA sweatshirt stands in front of boat called Sally Ride
UC Davis postdoctoral fellow Alyssa Griffin studies ocean chemistry and advocates for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Here she stands in front of the R/V Sally Ride before embarking on a research cruise to study iron and carbon cycling off the California coast. (May-Linn Paulsen)

In November 2020, a study in the journal Nature concluded that early-career female scientists were more impactful when collaborating with male mentors. “Impact” in the study was measured by the number of publications and citations held by the scientists.

Unsurprisingly, Twitter’s scientific community exploded

Screenshot of Tweet by Sarah Davies: "This paper disgusts me. All is does is showcase how deep rooted the whole academic system is in the patriarchy and how we disproportionately value science by senior males. Tear it down ladies and don't let papers like this challenge your mentorship worth!"


The criticism was swift and cutting. The study, by a female lead author, was eventually retracted.

But the notion that success in science is measured in citations and publications did not start or end with the Nature study. It has long been the currency of science. Yet several studies have shown that those metrics were built on and perpetuate systemic sexist and racist values. For example, white scientists are more likely to cite other white scientists. Male scientists tend to self-cite at higher rates than women. The process becomes exclusionary.

The conversations and outrage during the uproar over the study prompted a paper published recently in the journal PLOS Biology that calls for a shift in the scientific value system.

“Citations and impact metrics have been repeatedly shown to be sexist and racist, yet we still use them,” said co-leading author Sarah Davies, an assistant professor at Boston University. “It is high time we shift to a system that appreciates the varied avenues of impact in science. Valuing mentorship and advocating for diversity will be key components of this change.” 

Opening doors and removing barriers

Alyssa Griffin is a postdoctoral fellow studying ocean chemistry and carbon storage in UC Davis Professor Tessa Hill’s Ocean Climate Lab at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. They are both geochemists and co-authors on the PLOS Biology study.

Griffin offers no less than three analogies to describe her research with coral reefs, and she’s currently exploring avenues for blue carbon storage in seagrass. Her passion to conduct and explain science is clear and contagious. She is equally passionate about being an advocate for justice, equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM.

“It would be great to be able to just do my science,” Griffin says. “There are people who have that luxury and don’t have to think about the ways in which the scientific community actively excludes and harms people. But as a woman of color, I’m not afforded that privilege.”

Woman scientist SCUBA diving during field work
Alyssa Griffin deploys experimental incubations off the coast of Lizard Island, Australia along the Great Barrier Reef. (Tyler Cyronak)

The geosciences lag behind most STEM fields for gender, racial, and ethnic diversity.

“In terms of percentages, I’m one of very few women of color who hold a PhD in the earth sciences,” Griffin says. “Helping others pursue scientific education and careers is really important to me because I made it through a system designed to exclude people like me. When I say I’m an advocate, it means using my privilege to create opportunities, remove barriers and fling the door wide open for everyone and anyone who wants to do earth science.”

Ways to rethink values

Rethinking science’s value systems is a key component of helping more people break through those barriers. Current definitions of “impact” and “success” clearly come into play during tenure review, funding opportunities or other awards for excellence. The women authoring the PLOS Biology paper call for the scientific community –and especially those in positions of power and privilege—to:

  1. Reject implicit and systematic biases, such as citation and publication biases.
  2. Expand measures of success to include mentorship and support for the mentee’s wellbeing.
  3. Place more value on recruiting and retaining diverse scientists through fostering safe and healthy work environments.
  4. Advance science through principles of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

Beyond science, such guidance could be applied to many work environments that currently value productivity and output over mentorship, well-being, long-term job satisfaction and retainment.

So what does this have to do with climate change?

The paper’s climate connection may not be apparent at first to some, but it is very clear to Griffin, who has seen the effects of dissolving coral reefs first-hand. She says any behavior that perpetuates these types of structures are only going to hurt our ability to fight climate change.

Woman scientists's head above water, smiling, during diving expedition
Geochemist Alyssa Griffin diving off the Scripps Pier in La Jolla, California. (Erik Jepsen)

She quotes National Science Foundation program director Brandon Jones when he said: “Our planet is facing all-hands-on-deck problems, but all hands are not on deck.”

Most of the people making climate change decisions are not from marginalized communities, yet those communities will be most directly impacted. Women and communities of color are also highly concerned about climate change and actively working to combat it.

“In the scientific community, we have a responsibility to value and amplify those voices,” Griffin says. “If we continue to perpetuate the narrow visions of what it means to be a scientist and be impactful throughout your career, it will exclude people we desperately need to be a part of this fight.”

Related: "Publish and Flourish: Taking a Broader Approach to Measure Success in Science" (UC Davis Egghead blog)

Media Resources

Kat Kerlin is an environmental science writer and media relations specialist at UC Davis. She’s the editor of the “What Can I Do About Climate Change?” blog. @UCDavis_Kerlin

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