Paper called “unscholarly, overtly racist” earns an editor’s note

Lawrence Mead

The journal that recently ran a controversial essay on poverty and race has flagged it with an editor’s note letting readers know about an investigation into the work. 

As we reported last week, Society, a Springer Nature title, published a paper by Lawrence Mead, of New York University, who argued that poor Blacks and Hispanics lack certain cultural traits that help European whites succeed in the face of economic adversity: 

Westerners are moralistic about social order, demanding that behavior respect universal principles, while in the non-West norms are less rigid and depend mostly on the expectations of others. These differences best explain why minorities—especially blacks and Hispanics—typically respond only weakly to chances to get ahead through education and work, and also why crime and other social problems run high in low-income areas. The black middle class has converted to an individualist style and thus advanced, but most blacks have not. Government has recently reduced crime and welfare in poor areas, but the ultimate solution to poverty is for the poor themselves to adopt the more inner-driven individualist style.

The article led to a pair of petitions, signed by hundreds of scholars and advocates, demanding retraction. That hasn’t happened. NYU also issued a statement rejecting

what we believe to be the article’s false, prejudicial, and stigmatizing assertions about the culture of communities of color in the United States.

However, we received a statement from a spokesperson for Springer Nature saying that the article has been tagged with an editor’s note:

Concerns have been raised with this article and are being investigated. Further editorial action will be taken as appropriate once the investigation into the concerns is complete and all parties have been given an opportunity to respond in full.

According to the spokesperson: 

We share the concerns that many have raised about this article.  An expedited full investigation is under way.  As an immediate measure, and in agreement with the Editor in Chief, an editor’s note has been placed on the article and we are taking every step necessary to resolve this situation swiftly.

As a company we want to make clear that Springer Nature stands against racism and discrimination of any kind. We strive to play an active role in promoting and celebrating diversity across our company.

The spokesperson explained that Springer Nature uses editor’s notes and expressions of concern (EOC) equivalently, but that EOCs require a formal response from the author(s). Although the former are not indexed, as are EoCs, an editor’s note:  

is faster to publish which is why this was used in this case.

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9 thoughts on “Paper called “unscholarly, overtly racist” earns an editor’s note”

  1. Is this an example of a paper with no scientific flaws being attacked because it is not politically correct?

    1. Take a look at the works cited; mostly the author’s own work, or of works over 25 years old. Given the large quantity of literature on the subject, it is hard to believe the author had to scrounge data from a quarter century ago if the paper’s ideas were at all supported by more current research. Not to mention that research about economics, society, culture, etc from the 80s and 90s is unlikely to be relevant in 2020.
      Just a question for you; have there been papers retracted purely on a “political correctness” charge? I’ve only ever seen papers retracted that were both racist/sexist and filled with bad data and flawed reasoning. The fact that racist/sexist papers get flagged probably has more to do with the flimsy theories they are pushing (ie Race Realism), than any kind of bias on the part of academics.

    2. I would recommend that you read the paper before jumping to conclusions. It is a poor piece of work.

  2. Not just not politically correct. This is objectively a bad paper. Not my field, so I don’t know what the norms are, but it reads like speculation and entire paragraphs of claims lack references to previous research. Reads like a manifesto of claims that the author seems to think are self-evident.

    1. You’re absolutely right. It’s really poor scholarship and I can’t understand why it was published at all. I’m also not sure why an inquiry is needed to determine this.

  3. NOTE: This is a copy/paste of comments I made on another site discussing this paper (see:, opinion piece titled “Racist research must be named, but often allowed” by Professor Harman).

    I am excited to see a letter like the one from Prof Harman. In a landscape which, to an outsider, appears to have grown intolerant to actual academic freedom, it is a refreshing thing to see this stance openly espoused.

    Furthermore, I completely agree with her assessment that a race-based inquiry would be a bad thing. After all, once this is established, would we then have an LGBT… committee? And a gender committee? And a whatever-is-next committee?

    Another place where we agree is with the acceptance of comments labeling a study as, in this case, racist. Perhaps if we differ, it is in how they should be addressed.

    In today’s hyper-offended cancel culture, accusations of “racism” are seemingly scattered about so liberally that they have lost all meaning — and yet at the same time, can cause lasting damage in a way the hapless target is wholley incapable of defending themselves against.

    I, for one, believe all studies should be published, irrespective of their “acceptability” to current culture. I may not agree with the results, and I may be offended by the study. I may even question the researcher’s motives and bias. That is my right — and my issue. I am the one who must “deal with it.” If I truly believe the research is bad/wrong/biased, then it is MY privilege (or duty) to present a peer-review of the study, showing the weaknesses, or even, if possible, conduct a competing research study which corrects whatever deficits I have found.

    Given our 1st Amendment rights, however, it is also my “right” to stomp around, be offended, and toss out a diatribe which lends nothing to the discussion except knee-jerk reactions and accusations.

    All of this, from my reading of her comments, is where Prof Harman and I agree — the responces can be whatever they like. We should not limit either one.

    My solution to this conundrum is not to limit the freedom of publishing academic studies, nor to limit the freedom of people to comment on them. I am very libertarian in both of those points. No, my solution is to hold the comments to the same standard as we would hold the study.

    This would mean an obviously knee-jerk diatribe would simply be ignored, while a thoughtful one would be considered. Just as the study should be judged on the merits of the facts, so should the comments.

    In the present context, the original study upon which these comments are based should not, in my opinion, be at all considered for censure or removal. Like it or not, it did present ideas which merit further discussion.

    Retraction Watch gave a one sentence summary in a post (…/paper-called-unscholarly…/) which I believe adequately described the original: “…Society, a Springer Nature title, published a paper by Lawrence Mead, of New York University, who argued that poor Blacks and Hispanics lack certain cultural traits that help European whites succeed in the face of economic adversity…”

    I could provide anecdotal evidence from my own (European stock) family going back at least four generations, showing a substantial number of examples which counter this statement. Even today, with the research I am helping with on SARS-CoV-2, the spike in Hispanic cases shows how they ARE actually working to “…succeed in the face of economic adversity…” as opposed to sitting around on lockdown.

    If I had the credentials to do so, I would start working on a research project to take what Mead started with, and push it into what I consider a better direction. I have a completely different thought on why these minority groups are suffering in today’s society, so with that coloring my research design, my personal bias would probably show up in the study — like it does with everyone. And once it was published, someone else would take up the gauntlet, and publish something to correct BOTH of them. That’s how it is SUPPOSED to work, right?

    It is only possible when attitudes like the one Prof Harman expressed drown out the cancel culture, and push the envelop of what research can be done, and what studies can be accepted for peer-review and publication.

    I am overjoyed to see the original was not removed. I am equally overjoyed to see the message from Prof Harman!

  4. The problem with these low-end publications (Society sports a measly 0.639 Impact Factor) is that they are akin to scientific Twitter: just about anybody can publish just about anything. Nobody of note wants to review for them, and in case of niche fields even decent reviewers often get the repetition fatigue – you reject a manuscript OTRed in a high-profile journal, and it comes back from another, couple of fingers lower, and from one lower still after each rejection, until you recommend accepting it out of contempt for the journal with a fractional impact. The very process of academic review is under tremendous strain of mediocre, pedestrian, redundant, derivative, and superfluous garbage. The paper in question should have been rejected for poor scholarship, not because it is racist or may be perceived as one. I understand that political science isn’t an actual science, but it is still kinda scholarly enterprise. So it’s up to even this lowly publication to make an effort in distinguishing between a scholarly work and a just-so story and not adorn the latter with a badge of peer-reviewed report. Had it appeared on a personal blog or in the Daily Stormer, this outpouring from Dr Meade would be largely ignored by anyone but the racists and white supremacists. Now we can’t ignore it, because it has been sneaked into the academic publication record. Well, whoever dragged this in, has to mop it up.

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