Ever been asked to remove a reference for libel concerns? These authors have

Last month, Nature Ecology & Evolution published a series of responses to a previous article recommending essential reading for all ecologists. In one response, the authors argue that the list is highly biased in favor of white male authors, and raises the problem of bullying and harassment in academia. But the letter is missing one key reference from its original submission: To a recent news story in Science reporting “disturbing” sexual harassment allegations against a prominent field researcher.

Why is the reference missing?

Because the editor at Nature Ecology & Evolution asked the authors to take it out, citing concerns about libel.

Here’s the note the authors received on their original submission:

I’m afraid we need to ask you to remove ref 3. We planned to cite this in our recent editorial on harassment but were advised to remove it by our legal team. We still referred to the case, using carefully checked legal phrasing, but we couldn’t cite the actual article. This has to do with differences in libel laws between US and UK, and the fact that the Science article is published in the US whereas our articles are published in the UK.

Reference 3 refers to this October 6 news article published by Science, entitled “Disturbing allegations of sexual harassment in Antarctica leveled at noted scientist.”  (Note: We have a partnership with Science, in which we contribute in-depth stories to their news section.)

First author of the letter, Julia Baum at the University of Victoria in Canada, confirmed to us that she was asked to remove the reference, and the language of the request, but declined to comment further.

Here is an excerpt from Baum and Martin’s letter:

Rather than developing a representative and inspiring list of papers for young ecologists, Courchamp & Bradshaw have presented a highly gender and racially biased list in which 97 of 100 selected articles are first-authored by white men. Only two articles are led by women (Camille Parmesan and Mary Power); these are ranked last.

A spokesperson for Nature told us:

We took a precautionary approach when it came to this comment and editorial, given that we are subject to UK libel laws which are, as we stated, different from US laws.  We maintain that both the editorial and comment pieces provided extensive and robust discussion of the issues, the removal of the reference notwithstanding, and we are committed to ensuring that we rigorously represent the views of the academic community in our journal.

Nature is certainly familiar with UK libel laws: In 2012, the journal won a years-long libel lawsuit launched by a journal editor who took issue with a 2008 Nature news story.

But should legal concerns prevent researchers from citing references from legitimate sources?

Other ecologists react

We consulted the authors of the other letters published alongside Baum and Martin’s, to see what they thought about the journal’s request to remove the reference..

Gregory Gilbert of the University of California, Santa Cruz, told us he wasn’t particularly concerned, saying that this request from a Nature editor was “not necessarily indicative of a larger issue:”

I take as well grounded the Nature E&E editor’s comment that this article has issues for publication because of differences in libel law between the US and the UK.  I did not see this in any way as diminishing the point made by Baum and Martin, since citation #4 was actually better support for their statement than #3.  #3 was really focused on one particular person as an example, whereas the statement was for broader patterns.  I did find it curious –  I had never encountered that as a reason — but then I’ve never tried to cite such an accusatory new piece in anything I have written.

He added:

I would be concerned if in peer-reviewed scientific publications there was legal scrutiny about which scientific publications could be cited, if they appropriately related to the point being made and were accurately represented.  However, these letters to the editor are not peer-reviewed and not scientific publications — they are letters to the editor.

Gilbert’s letter, published alongside Baum and Martin’s, also commented on the “dramatic gender imbalance” present in the list of 100 recommended readings in ecology.

Emilio Bruna of the University of Florida, who wrote a letter arguing the reliance on editorial board members to nominate must-read articles may have skewed the results by nationality and gender, echoed Gilbert’s sentiments:

I’m not especially concerned that this is  academic censorship.  I know that the UK has more stringent libel laws. My guess at the time was that as “correspondence to the Editor” they legally fall under a different category than peer-reviewed research papers, requiring more care regarding potential liability. If so, the Editors probably could have done a better job explaining this to assuage any fears. Had a similar request been made in a research article, then I would be concerned.

What do you think? Tell us in our poll, below.

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9 thoughts on “Ever been asked to remove a reference for libel concerns? These authors have”

  1. Do I have to check the race and sex of the first author of every citation I make in a manuscript (and manuscripts I handle as an editor) to make sure I am fulfilling diversity requirements?

  2. Having spent a good part of my professional life in academic libraries, there is no doubt in my mind that white males are over-represented among the readers of scientific journals.
    Feeling obliged to do my part in fighting inequality, I henceforth will refrain from reading anything published in scientific journals, until the race and gender imbalance in their readership has disappeared. Justice must prevail!

      1. I’m not sure, because the evidence is ambiguous.
        I don’t know, for example, whether ‘jxj’ is male or female.

    1. I guess you won’t be reading any scientific journals in your lifetime. With that being said, I think you could do something more constructive than this abstinence pledge. Perhaps you could help some female and/or non-white researchers publish solid and influential articles. Just a thought!

  3. In my career as a scientist I never judged a paper by the authors sex, perceived nationality or skin color. Since my institution is from a different field, I have no access to the complete article or follow-up comments. However from what I gathered from the summary above, the list was apparently compiled from many people actively engaged in the field. Must we now believe that everyone involved was implicitly biased against women, asians, hispanics, blacks etc.? And what is the most inspiring part of a scientific paper, the science or the diversity of the author list? And… why restrict the analysis to 1st authors?Not last or all authors? Because they were more diverse? Thus creating less outrage?

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