Britney Spears story prompts apology from Nature and author

Britney Spears in 2013 (Glenn Francis)

Britney Spears has, as Retraction Watch readers no doubt know, been in the news a great deal lately, as the battle over her father’s “broad control over her life and finances” plays out in court. But a science fiction story about Spears that published in Nature in 2008 — the year Spears’ father was appointed her conservator — has prompted apologies from its author and the journal.

The story, which appeared in a section of the journal called Nature Futures, is titled “When Britney Spears comes to my lab.” It begins:

When Britney Spears comes to [Louisiana State University] LSU she’ll be wearing a silver strapless stretch top that doesn’t show too much of her belly (unless she actually moves her arms), and black Capri pants with a little dip in the waistband.

That and other passages in the piece — in which Spears goes on to earn a PhD from Harvard and discover a treatment for diabetes — caught the attention of more than 1,000 Twitter users since Friday. Many questioned why Nature would publish it. An example:

https://twitter.com/NinaStrohminger/status/1408890035689099264

Vincent Licata, the professor at LSU who wrote the piece, told Retraction Watch that his attempt at humor “was clearly inappropriate and I have been apologizing for it to those who have contacted me and clearly been hurt by it.” Licata said he was

trying to describe what I saw as Britney’s potential/imagined successes in academia and research (if she had in reality chosen such a path), wrapped inside of the regrettable public/media perception of her at the time. 

Nature also apologized when contacted for comment:

This 2008 article, published in Futures, the science fiction section of Nature, was recently flagged to us.  We understand the concerns raised and would like to apologise for any offense caused. We have contacted the author of the piece regarding next steps.

Here are Licata’s full comments:

Yes, I’ve seen some of the “attention” and been trying to respond to people directly when possible.  I’m not sure if “retraction” would even have any real meaning for an article like this as it is not a research article and as you probably know, the “Nature Futures” section is a one-page fictional short story with a science-fantasy or science-fiction theme published in the journal each week.  Nature accepted this one originally within a couple of days and said it was hilarious, which was one of its primary intents.  It also used the framework to describe an ideal career path for a high-achiever and to make the point that Britney’s drive and creativity would have made her a quite strong researcher had she chosen to pursue such a career (in the piece she does so simultaneously with her singing career).  Britney’s performing image at that time, unfortunately strongly focused on objectification of her, and so those elements are where most of the attempted satire of the piece comes from -i.e. using the descriptive style of articles about Britney at the time, but deliberately twisting those descriptions into descriptions of her advancing scientific accomplishments.  This humor, however, was clearly inappropriate and I have been apologizing for it to those who have contacted me and clearly been hurt by it.  The attempted positive and non-satirical elements of the piece include her numerous scientific successes in the piece (PhD from Harvard, postdoc at the Pasteur Institute, having the heart of a dedicated researcher, and the discovery of a new treatment for diabetes, among several others – more success than many academics in general).  I am actually saddened that some people are assuming it was a negative or attack piece, as that not only surprised me and was not my intention, but I was and still am a fan of Britney’s work.  In summary, I was trying to describe what I saw as Britney’s potential/imagined successes in academia and research (if she had in reality chosen such a path), wrapped inside of the regrettable public/media perception of her at the time.

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14 thoughts on “Britney Spears story prompts apology from Nature and author”

  1. How ridiculous can you get? This is a well written culture critique on a society, that considers undemanding pop culture front page news and deep insight into the natural world boring. It was written 13 years ago and only now dozens of people who had never before in their lives held a nature issue in their hands just happen to find it offensive? How much more proof do you need, that these moral storms are completely artificial and manufactured by powerful individuals wielding massive resources?
    Interestingly just what Prof. LiCata envisioned is indeed happening in Germany. There is a fake Youtube channel called Mailab that looks like a private blog but is in fact professionally produced by German national TV. In it a young chemistry researcher successfully explains scientific concepts to a wide audience. As Bacon put it “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain”. This is what LiCata appeals for scientists (who else normally reads nature?) to do and we would do well to heed his advice.
    Whenever I try to explain mathematical concepts to humanities students, my main aim is to get across that maths is easy, understandable, helpful, and fun. The actual current subject matter is secondary.

    1. You need to research again because you are spreading false information: The German YouTube channel “maiLab” was never fake. It started as a usual YouTube channel. After years of growing audience, the channel was transformed and is now supported by funk [Gemeinschaftsangebot der Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ARD) und des Zweiten Deutschen Fernsehens (ZDF) http://go.funk.net/impressum%5D This has been an openly communicated change and was not intended to trick any viewer.

      1. I accept your criticism, I could have put it better. The production is not secret, but the first impression a new viewer gets is that of a solitary scientist privately doing her thing from home and that’s on purpose.

  2. I saw this storm on Twitter and assumed that Nature had published some horribly misogynistic screed.

    Upon learning this was a weird little satire piece from 2008, I shrugged. It’s not funny today, but thinking back to the image of Britney Spears we were presented back then, I might have found it funny then. The times have been changing very quickly. It’s not the author’s or Nature’s fault that they weren’t 13 years ahead of the times.

  3. Not sure that I agree with the previous comment about people being ridiculous. The supposed ‘critique’ of society was framed from the rather tired & old ‘Pygmalion’ theme. To me that was what was really disappointing about the article. That someone who is supposedly intelligent and enters into a completely new area needs their hand held by a member of the privileged dominant culture & does not have the intellectual capacity to appreciate what they might need to do made it a pretty uncomfortable read. I say this as someone who has mentored female as also minority scientists in the lab. They are tired of the stereotyping & dealing with the continual putdowns that they experience in academia in daily life. Ironically, it is these very people who usually have the emotional intelligence to deal with sensitive situations in their workplace – & it is the senior people in academia that end up learning from them. Have seen plenty of instances of this. Unfortunately, the article appears to say much more about the writer’s paternalistic world view – at least that is how comes across to the reader. Why do I mention that? Because the writer seems surprised by the reader reaction. THAT for me was more disturbing than actually reading the article itself…

    1. I don’t agree. Did you not need a lot of help and mentoring when first entering a lab as a young student? I know I did. Yes, I was not a rich and accomplished popstar at the time and quite a bit less gifted than she is made out here, but apart from that the description fits.

      1. I agree. One would have written essentially the same piece about a female or male LSU student athlete or marching band member, “learning the ropes” of a scientific discipline while balancing lab work with other commitments, *without* substantially changing the content (though losing the satirical element). Which young researcher hasn’t mispronounced a word at a meeting or made mistakes using laboratory equipment? Whereas the issue of “laboratory dress” hints at possible sexism, it was quite topical in the mid-2000s: in my community, there were heated debates about whether university researchers – male or female – could wear shorts in the laboratory. Unfortunately, it took an accident followed by death in a California lab in late 2008 – after publication of the piece – to substantially shift the debate.

        The implicit suggestion that the issues faced by the satirical Ms./Dr. Spears pertain only to women (and perhaps minorities) may be more sexist than the piece itself.

        1. “The implicit suggestion that the issues faced by the satirical Ms./Dr. Spears pertain only to women (and perhaps minorities) may be more sexist than the piece itself.”

          Pray tell, what is the piece communicating about “issues faced”? Based on the written text of the so-called article, without any scholarly interpretation needed, the piece is almost entirely concerned with male author’s gaze upon the fictional Ms./Dr. Spears looks. Is this a healthy, inclusive work environment for Ms./Dr. Spears? I think not. Lawyers may also beg to differ.

          1. A central message of this satirical piece is that PIs should support students who discover their interest in science relatively late, or who have other commitments when they start working in lab. In some cases, as in the satirical piece, their tenacity, work ethic, and time management skills will more than compensate their lack of previous scientific experience.

            It is a message of inclusion of students who do not originate from the common academic environment (mother a doctor, father a lawyer, met at Yale) where many students in the sciences originate.

            That this message makes risk-averse PIs – in terms of accepting students with atypical backgrounds or other commitments – at elite institutions uncomfortable is understandable.

      2. Good heavens yes. As an undergraduate I had to present my research work at a national conference. But here’s the deal: I never had a female mentor – I did my training in a physics & biomedical engineering sphere. All of my male mentors were absolutely wonderful. They ensured that I knew how to present my findings in a professional manner, that I could interact with colleagues in a professional environment – they gave me leadership opportunities. They trusted me to take risks professionally & helped me do that. And, best of all, they did NOT inflict their [middle-aged white male] clothing choices on me! Instead we focused on what was important – spending that valuable time on the things that really matter to becoming a successful scientist.

        The fact that we are in the 21st century & people are still focused on what female scientists or women in any public sphere are wearing says much more about the commenters than about the women in the public sphere. An excellent case in point – for the first time in the USA we have a 1st lady who has a PhD. But what is the focus in the general public & the media? Her attire & the fact that she made a recent cover of Vogue. Yet, there are many people who refuse to recognize her title – Dr. – something that was earned after a lot of hard academic work. This is something that the male scientists who pass off the critiques of this 10 year old Nature piece will never understand. Their credibility is seldom judged on how they dress. Indeed, if their credibility was judged that way, they would be absolutely outraged [as they, of course, should be]. The problem here is that we need to recognize implicit biases. What seems OK to us may not be so for others – others who have experienced prejudice & have been denied scientific opportunities because of their physical attributes – be it sex or skin color.

  4. This Nature piece is the worst thing I read this week, and I say this after rejecting several erroneous papers in my narrow field already this week. This so-called article in Nature is neither funny, nor witty, nor satirical (as claimed). Already at the time, there was a movement of “leave Britney alone” (now an (in)famous meme), clearly articulating the insipid obsession of the media with Ms. Spears’ person life. However, the author of this so-called Nature piece (and the esteemed Nature editors) clearly missed this current development in 2007.

    This so-called piece wouldn’t earn a passing grade in a 9th grade High School English class. The article is simply crass, cringe-inducing, erotic fiction. It is poorly written. It doesn’t achieve its goals of cultural commentary (as claimed).

    Overall, it is shocking to hear about how an LSU PI would ogle a student in his lab, comment on her personal life (dating), and how he would then go home and fantasize about her see-thru dresses she might wear at the Grammy’s. It is absolutely disgusting, in 2008, in 2021, or even in 1990.

  5. Ask yourself this question: If that Nature piece switched the words from “Britney Spears” to “Kevin Federline”, and changed “she” to a “he”, would there be a twitter storm?

    I think not.

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