The Guardian retracts hotly debated post on Lisa Adams’ tweets about her cancer

guardianThe Guardian has removed a post about Lisa Bonchek Adams, a woman who has been tweeting her experiences with stage 4 breast cancer, after it and a related piece in The New York Times ignited a firestorm of online criticism.

The Atlantic’s Megan Garber describes the two pieces — one, by Emma Keller, and the other by her husband Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times — this way:

[The] pair of opinion pieces—Bill’s, in The New York Times, and Emma’s, in the Guardian—…assess the ethical dimensions of talking about cancer. Both Kellers tell the story of a woman named Lisa Bonchek Adams, who has stage 4 breast cancer and has been tweeting and blogging her experience. (Bill learned about her from Emma; they’re married.) Both Kellers are concerned about Adams—but also, and sometimes seemingly more so, about her tweets. Bill frets about Adams’s “decision to live her cancer onstage,” Emma about her own “voyeurism” toward Adams’s cancer tweets. Both do so in a way that is fairly patronizing both to Adams and to her cancer. Call it cansplaining.

At 12:40 p.m. Eastern today, Garber appended a note to her story saying the Guardian piece had been taken down, and this explanation posted:

This post has been deleted with the agreement of the subject because it is inconsistent with the Guardian editorial code.

That message has since been replaced with:

This post has been removed pending investigation.

The newspaper told iMediaEthics:

Following an investigation by the Guardian’s independent readers’ editor, we have removed the article in question from our website because it is inconsistent with the Guardian editorial code. This decision was taken with the agreement of Lisa Adams.

iMediaEthics also reports:

Before the post was unpublished, Keller posted an update confessing that she cited her private e-mails with Adams in her post. The update said she failed to let Adams know “about the article and should have told her that I planned to quote from our conversations,” The Nation’s Greg Mitchell noted. That update read:

“Since this article was published two days ago, there’s been a lot of negative comment on Twitter and below the line. Lisa Adams herself was upset by it. I had been in communication with her a number of times in recent weeks; given her health, I could have given her advance warning about the article and should have told her that I planned to quote from our conversations. I regret not doing so.”

Hat tip: John Novack

8 thoughts on “The Guardian retracts hotly debated post on Lisa Adams’ tweets about her cancer”

  1. Adam and Ivan,
    it seems there is an increasing number of posts that have little to do with retractions or problems of scientific papers. Is this a deliberate change?

      1. A retraction is a retraction is a retraction – and this one, unlike many retractions of purely scientific papers, illustrates how even in non-science publications like The Guardian, ethical and accuracy issues matter.

    1. Thanks for the question. I just looked back at our most recent 50 posts, and the only one I could find other than this post that wasn’t about a retraction or problems in scientific papers was one about Jonah Lehrer’s retracted book: We’d argue that’s close enough to science to be quite relevant, but even if you count it as unrelated, that’s two out of 50. So it’s quite unusual for us to cover something like this, and when we do, we do so because we think it’s useful to see how retractions are handled outside of science, too. If you have other examples that we’ve overlooked, please do send them.

      1. Actually, I think that this is tremendously important for science and scientists. And I am a scientist. Not because it might not necessarily address a scientific issue, but because The Guardian is a paper that often comments about scientific issues, and serves as a conduit of information and bridge between science and society. So, it principles and its outlook are actually important for scientists to take note of. The logic and principle would be the same whether we are talking about Al-Jezeera, CNN, Forbes Magazine, The Economist, or The New York Times. Firstly, can the Guardian maybe explain in detail, here or elsewhere, what is the “Guardian editorial code”? That sounds like something a traditional publisher would say about their publishing ethics code, so this could be of interest. Although I agree that it would be in the best interest of scientists if RW could stay focused on science- and publishing-related retractions, I certainly don’t see anywhere on the blog that defines the strict borders of topics covered by RW, even though the catch-phrase is “Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process.” Let us never forget the questionable publishing ethics practiced in Bohannon’s sting (by using false submissions, false names and false e-mails – all of which would land a real scientists a royal post on this blog), which was then covered up by his defenders, and by Science, as being an act of “journalistic investigation”, and a euphemistic term, a sting. How can unethical publishing practices ever merit the exposure of others it is trying to prove are unethical? So, there seems to be this (conveniently) murky border between journalism and scientific reporting and publishing in some people’s minds. Provided that the difference between the two is being made murkier by powerful interest groups and corporations, including newspapers, it is also best to keep an eye on them, too. Although, in my opinion, a blog comment or Tweet would probably rank as the lowest tier of relevance to RW readers. However, to keep the readership wide, to get the public interested in (and revolted by) the stories appearing on RW, surely the scientific community can see the importance and value of that 5% margin or topical flexibility?

  2. I read the original article in the Guardian. It didn’t strike me as being patronizing. It did however draw critical attention to the degree to which social media allow people to express what are often raw emotions with a kind of immediacy and a potentially global audience that has been quite impossible through all of previous human history. A number of people do this: For example @grangerkate is a British doctor who is describing her experience of terminal cancer on twitter, and a famous American journalist (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) recently tweeted his mother’s last hours. It seems to me that what is at issue here is manners rather than misconduct. It is bad manners to publish private correspondence without permission, but it is not necessarily journalistic misconduct. Good journalism sometimes involves breaches of trust that would be regarded as outrageous and unethical were they to be committed by an anthropologist or sociologist in the course of their research (in the past I have been asked to anonymoize statements by government ministers and members of pariliament by an IRB). In this case, the boundaries between what is public and private may be blurred by Lisa Adma’s very public exposure of her experiences and feelings.

    The Guardian newspaper’s code of ethics can be found here:

    1. Carl, thanks for that link. Actually, that document was a very fascinating (and exhaustive) read, to be honest. I recommend that all scientists actually read this editorial code. Maybe also COPE, CSE, WAME, the ICMJE and others associated with publishing ethics should also spend some time reading this. Not because it is interesting, per se, to read. But because of what it says about the massive differences between science publishing and journalism, and how ethics and writing/publishing code vary so widely between these two disciplines, as pertains to editors. We already know that publishing code already varies so widely between journals and even publishers in science publishing, so to see this code is strikingly surprising. Actually, I like some of the code and actually some of it could be pertinent as we move post-publication peer review, vigilantism, anonymity and whistle-blowing further into unchartered territory in science publishing. Personally, I believe that this is what makes the Bohannon “sting” so complex. Because, he was using journalistic principles, but was using the techniques in a scientific context. Thus, trickery, lying, falsification – as used by Bohannon – appear to be acceptable in journalism in order to justify the means and the final story’s results to obtain the truth. However, in science, his methodology would be, without doubt, 100% unacceptable and unethical. That is most likely why there was such fierce criticisms and defense of his paper and of Science’s position. So, as we move forward with retractions, while some are angered more and more, others retreat further and yet others defend more aggressively, we should try to keep our eyes on both these sets of parameters used in journalism and in science publishing. Actually, I think it’s good that they stay separate. Fusing these two sets of principles will be the final road to erosion of values in science publishing, I believe. I wanted to download the code as a PDF file, but was unable to (frustrating!).

    2. Well, if taking advantage of a terminally ill person for your own personal gain is not a form of misconduct then what is?

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