MSUToday
Published: June 26, 2020

Disparities in biology textbooks explored

Contact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561 osowskiv@msu.edu, Kim Ward Communication and Brand Strategy office: (517) 432-0117 cell: (734) 658-4250 kim.ward@cabs.msu.edu

Researchers from four universities, including Michigan State University plant biologists Marjorie Weber and Ash Zemenick, participated in a study to explore a potential demographic mismatch in scientists featured in biology textbooks and the students who use them.

The resulting research paper, “A scientist like me: demographic analysis of biology textbooks reveals both progress and long-term lags,” was recently published in the biology journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Two Auburn University students, Sara Wood and Taylor McKibben — worked alongside principal investigator Cissy Ballen, assistant professor in the Auburn University Department of Biological Sciences and recent Auburn graduate Kelsey (Luoying) Chen.

The team collaborated with professors and scholars from MSU, the University of South Alabama and the University of Konstanz, Germany, to perform a demographic analysis by extracting hundreds of human names from common biology textbooks and assessing the binary gender and race of featured scientists.

Zemenick, who is a research associate in the Weber lab, generated the idea for this paper, which was born out of their work with Weber on Project Biodiversify — a repository of teaching materials and methods aimed at enhancing human diversity and inclusivity in biology courses.

They then contacted Ballen, who has expertise in this area of research, for help with executing the project. From that point on, Ballen's team took the lead, and Weber and Zemenick were both involved to help with study design, execution and writing as needed.

The team discovered that the most common scientists featured in textbooks are white men. However, women and scientists of color are increasingly represented in contemporary scientific discoveries. In fact, the proportion of women highlighted in textbooks has increased with the proportion of women in the field, indicating that textbooks are matching a changing demographic landscape.

“Seeing a diversity of scientist role models can have a tremendous impact on young minds,” Weber said. “Every student should have the experience of seeing for themselves that scientists can be like them, and that they, in turn, can be a scientist.”

Their research also shows that the scientists portrayed in textbooks are not representative of their target audience, which is the student population. They discovered that overall, very few scientists of color were highlighted, and projections suggest it could take multiple centuries at current rates before inclusive representation in reached.

Given the importance of role models in science, they conclude with a call for publishers to expand upon the scientists they highlight to reflect the diverse population of learners in biology.

“We’ve known for a long time that there are huge gaps in diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM,” Zemenick said. “Diversifying role models in textbooks and courses is one easy thing we can do among myriad changes needed. We launched Project Biodiversify to facilitate the inclusion of a greater diversity of scientists highlighted in biology courses.”

The original paper can be found here.