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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Nature apologizes for publishing letter dismissing need for gender balance

with 16 comments

courtesy Nature Publishing Group

courtesy Nature Publishing Group

In yesterday’s Weekend Reads, we highlighted a piece by Hope Jahren explaining why she wouldn’t agree to a Q&A with Nature. We found out after Weekend Reads had posted that the story had moved on, so here’s an update.

Jahren was objecting — as did a number of people — to a letter published in Nature earlier in the week by Lukas Koube of Sherman, Texas, which began:

The publication of research papers should be based on quality and merit, so the gender balance of authors is not relevant in the same way as it might be for commissioned writers (see Nature 504, 188; 2013). Neither is the disproportionate number of male reviewers evidence of gender bias.

It went on from there, as Kelly Hills describes.

Friday morning, in an addendum to the letter, Nature editor-in-chief Philip Campbell apologized for printing it:

Nature has a strong history of supporting women in science and of reflecting the views of the community in our pages, including Correspondence. Our Correspondence pages do not reflect the views of the journal or its editors; they reflect the views only of the correspondents.

We do not endorse the views expressed in this Correspondence (or indeed any Correspondences unless we explicitly say so). On re-examining the letter and the process, we consider that it adds no value to the discussion and unnecessarily inflames it, that it did not receive adequate editorial attention, and that we should not have published it, for which we apologize. This note will appear online on nature.com in the notes section of the Correspondence and in the Correspondence’s pdf.

Nature’s own positive views and engagement in the issues concerning women in science are represented by our special from 2013: http://www.nature.com/women

Here’s Hills’s response to the apology.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

January 19, 2014 at 9:30 am

16 Responses

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  1. Somebody managed managed to slip an unpopular view into the correspondance page of Nature!?! Thank god the thought vigilantes were on to it smartly.
    The price of political correctness is eternal vigilance.

    littlegreyrabbit

    January 19, 2014 at 10:44 am

    • There isn’t much freedom of speech left when it comes to gender issues.

      Tantal

      January 21, 2014 at 3:14 am

  2. Hey, this is Hope. I feel like I want to stress that my refusal was not an effort to silence Nature. Obviously Nature chooses what to publish, it’s their magazine, not mine. Similarly, I choose whom I talk to and for what purpose. I chose not to have a conversation that would end up in Nature magazine. In many, many ways this was not a smart choice for my career. But it was the right choice for me as a person.

    hjahren1

    January 19, 2014 at 2:07 pm

  3. What is the scientific basis for gender sensitivity, and if there is no scientific basis, then what is the merit that justifies its inclusion in a science discussion? Gender influence on selection of research, perhaps?

    Exactly what is there to apologize for, simply bring up gender in the first place by publishing the Koube letter?

    Please somebody explain from a non-emotional or non-political, i.e., science based rationale, I don’t see how a mission of truth can do otherwise unless the argument is labelled to be political or something besides concerned with relevant fact. I would not want to have to infer or interpret, so I would like it explained. And thank you most seriously.

    marcopolish

    January 19, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    • I hope you are not genuinely requiring a “science-based rationale” for treating your colleagues with respect.

      If you’re genuinely interested in evidence-based dialogue, you may agree that the letter should not have been published, since it presents and considers no evidence.

      • You’re defining your position as the only one that treats people with respect. I think the question is well and truly begged by your response.

        Tony Montana

        March 20, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    • “Please somebody explain from a non-emotional or non-political, i.e., science based rationale, I don’t see how a mission of truth can do otherwise”

      The fundamental conceit is that “mission of truth” means something specific, or, to take Koube’s actual words, that there is not just an existence proof for but some sort of quantification of “quality and merit.” His letter boils down to the insinuation that the publication bias in question is an outcome of some sort of Natural order rather than of the social order of academia.

      Narad

      January 19, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      • “What is truth?”. What’s the argument?

        Tony Montana

        March 20, 2014 at 2:38 pm

  4. That letter might not have been very elaborated and the stated reasons are questionable, but so is the assertion that there is a gender bias in publications. Gender bias in the sense of negative sexual discrimination of female authors, not in the sense of a lower absolute number of published papers. As far as I remember, there are fewer papers written by female scientists, but this tells you nothing unless you look, e.g., at the proportion of submissions, the number of female scientists in the specific domain (probably never 50:50), and their seniority. Including bad publication practices of having senior scientists on the paper, which, due to historical reasons, probably are predominantly male.

    And yup, I find the emotional outrage not conductive for an analysis of the situation and the Nature “please don’t hurt us” addendum will do its share to convey the impression that an open discussion is not desired.

    Science is a highly creative, e.g., high risk, and a highly competitive field. Publishing is hard. Rejection rates are high. I can see the temptation of blaming a gender bias for difficulties with publications, but I think it’s self-defeating. Because in one regard the letter was totally right: merit should count, not gender. And it’s not even clear if gender is really a factor if you control for the confounding variables, or if the editors are at fault.

    And if a bias in editors is assumed — for which I would want proof, not anecdotes and outrage — further anonymizing the submission process would be an easy technical remedy.

    danielwessel

    January 20, 2014 at 4:37 am

    • That letter might not have been very elaborated and the stated reasons are questionable, but so is the assertion that there is a gender bias in publications.

      It take it you based this statement on a review of what’s actually known.

      As far as I remember, there are fewer papers written by female scientists

      Silly me.

      but this tells you nothing unless you look, e.g., at the proportion of submissions distribution of unobtanium

      FTFY.

      the number of female scientists in the specific domain (probably never 50:50), and their seniority

      Yes, I’m sure that has never occurred anyone before. Oh, wait, that’s exactly the data set described on the pages following what Koube is replying to (he expounds his insights at greater length in the comments to doi:10.1038/504188a).

      Science is a highly creative, e.g., high risk, and a highly competitive field.

      Sounds manly.

      I can see the temptation of blaming a gender bias for difficulties with publications, but I think it’s self-defeating.

      Perhaps you could clarify who is claiming that she had “difficulties with publication” because of her sex and needs to man up and get over it.

      Because in one regard the letter was totally right: merit should count, not gender.

      Unless you think that everybody is PLoS One (sorry, I’m indifferent to their logo modifications; they’re stuck with what’s on the coffee mug), as I tried to point out above, this is where the problem of existence comes into play. Point to a crappy paper in a respectable journal that you think was published not to hurt the delicate feminine sensibilities of the author.

      And if a bias in editors is assumed — for which I would want proof, not anecdotes and outrage — further anonymizing the submission process would be an easy technical remedy.

      You don’t say. What would you suggest, removing the reference list and text mentions of previous work from the same group? Show me an author-redacted paper in a field that I know well, and I can tell you where it came from in short order. I may even be able to identify the author solely by style. This is a red herring.

      Narad

      January 21, 2014 at 3:44 am

      • I take it that obvious blockquote fail is obvious.

        Narad

        January 21, 2014 at 3:48 am

        • Where would you think the discrimination was occurring?

          Predominantly on the status of last author? Predominantly on the status of first author? All positions equally?
          If the last author is a female can this be partially alleviated if she has a male PhD student. Or can a female PhD student be protected from this effect if the head of her lab is male?

          littlegreyrabbit

          January 21, 2014 at 4:10 am

      • Well, at least you didn’t quote the: “I find the emotional outrage not conductive for an analysis of the situation”, that would have been hypocritical. But your posting shows exactly the problems I mean: Emotional outrage, combined with tunnel vision, wild accusations, etc. pp.

        Pity, because useful elements of your reply are downed out, e.g., whether submission rates are really unobtainable (journals have them) or whether anonymizing is really a red herring.

        Daniel Wessel

        January 21, 2014 at 3:56 am

  5. When did we as scientist become so soft? The person who wrote the letter was just bringing up a point– right or wrong. Everyone is free to form an opinion of it, but to have Nature apologize for publishing an opinion is sickening. I hope these are the dying gasps of the journal struggling to find itself in the new landscape of OA publishing and not a trend that reflects the failing backbone of the scientific community…

    Justin Popler

    January 20, 2014 at 9:31 am

  6. The Nature editor’s claim that the letter “did not receive adequate editorial attention” is disingenuous, given the way that boutique journal is edited.

    Akhlesh

    January 22, 2014 at 11:24 am

  7. Does the left hand of Nature know what the right hand is doing? Or do they just make stuff up as they go along?

    Nature editor Philip Campbell above

    “Nature has a strong history of supporting women in science…”

    A day or so earlier, Nature biological editor Henry Gee, exhibiting all the forethought of a pithed Ankylosaurus, happily outed a pseudonymous female science blogger on his Twitter stream. A female blogger he found to be “inconsequential” even though he had to do this.

    The blog by Michael Eisen is as good a place to start as any

    http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1554

    Though as ever, Google is your friend (or, er, perhaps not).

    Scrutineer

    January 24, 2014 at 2:14 am


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