Life as an Extreme Sport

A Primer on Apologies

I’ve talked before about trust as a limiting factor, and the steps to take to repair trust. But I haven’t actually spelled out an important first step to that, which is the apology. And, as you might know, today Nature apologized for a piece of correspondence published earlier this week that has people slightly irritated (see list, end of post).

NatureApologyWhile Nature’s apology is better than a nonpology, it’s not actually a full apology, and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s not being as well-received as the editors likely hoped. I detailed some of my issues with the apology on Twitter this morning, but I wanted to take the time to actually expand on what is necessary for a complete apology.

You can find quite a few different opinions on what constitutes an actual apology. I am fond of a four stage approach: Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse/Regret, Remedy. I think it’d be easiest to go through each of these and the Nature apology, to see where they succeed, and where they fail. Hopefully this will be illustrative not only to them now, but others in the future.


The first part of an apology is being able to articulate that you understand what you are apologizing for in the first place. This is often where nonpologies fall down; they apologize for hurting your feelings, rather than recognizing that what they said is the issue. When you recognize your mistake, you need to be specific. This is what Nature said:

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.

This isn’t a bad start. Ultimately, there is recognition that the commentary was inflammatory and it shouldn’t have been published. That said, what would have made it a good example of recognition is acknowledgement that the commentary that was published was offensive, as well. It’s not about adding no value, or even being inflammatory–it’s that it’s a point of view that has been systematically deconstructed and debunked over years, to the point that people who hold it are actually advocating biased, if not complete misogynistic, positions.

This part of an apology is pretty simple: you accept your responsibility for what you said or did. You don’t blame culture or shift it over to other people, or distance yourself from what happened. Nature’s apology does a decent job here; they note there was not adequate editorial attention and that it should not have been published.

Remorse or Regret
Anyone who watches nonpologies knows that it’s surprisingly rare to hear an apology stop with “I am sorry.” Nonpologies often creep in, with “I am sorry you feel that way.” In here, Nature also does well, simply stating “we should not have published it, for which we apologize.”

And this is where Nature’s apology completely fails. An important part of apologizing is noting how this mistake will not happen again. If you’re chronically late to meetings, simply saying “I’m sorry I’m late” isn’t going to cut it. Following it up with a statement on how you’re going to change things so you’re not late again (“I will start setting my watch 10 minutes ahead”) is necessary, so that the person receiving the apology knows what you intend to do to prevent having to apologize for the issue again.

This is completely missing from Nature’s apology. The closest they come is this:

Nature’s own positive views and engagement in the issues concerning women in science are represented by our special from 2013:

When you screw up, you don’t get to say “and look at what I did before I screwed up, that’s how you know I won’t screw up again!” It doesn’t work like that; when you screw up, you need to offer information on what you’re going to do in the future to avoid another screw up of the same kind; clearly the past wasn’t good enough, because here we are.

And Nature has some explaining to its readers. In particular, yesterday, Nature asserted that they published Koube’s commentary because it was representative of numerous comments they received. Many people immediately saw the flaw in this justification:

Emily Turtles

When you publish letters that are loaded with blatant bias (or otherwise use language fraught with social meaning), you are responsible for the ink and the publicity and the reputation hit, even if you didn’t mean it. It’s not enough for Nature to say “this doesn’t reflect the views of our organization” because they granted legitimacy simply by publishing the commentary and giving it a DOI. Nature needs to come back and address the questions raised by the justification of “but we got lots of the same comment.”

Nature needs to explain what the editorial failure was. Likewise, what are the editorial standards for commentaries, and do they differ from the rest of the publication? If so, how? And if not, how did a someone with no qualifications for commentary other than “being representative” get accepted for publication in the first place?

YertleDownAnd most importantly, how will Nature insure that something like this doesn’t happen again? And why, in particular, were they unable to weed out the issue with Koube’s commentary, but seem to have no problem weeding out endless turtle arguments, anti-vaccers, climate deniers, mermaid fans, the Flat Earth Society, and endless other conspiracy and crackpot theories?

These aren’t idle questions, and they’re all raised by Nature’s choice of published commentary, online explanations of what happened, and subsequent apology. If Nature is taking the approach of promoting false balance in commentaries, letters, and other comments, this is something that readers should be aware of, so that adjustments of expectations can be made. If false balance isn’t the intent, then Nature needs to share how they’re going to do their best to prevent publishing non-scientific, deliberately antagonistic and inflammatory content in the future.


Final Thoughts
In any apology, the “remedy” stage seems to be the hardest part for anyone (person or publishing group) to do, in part because it often requires a transparency of process that is uncomfortable. But when you screw up, you don’t get to ask for faith, because what you’ve done in the process of causing hurt is lose trust. You can ask for it back all you want, but chances are you’re going to actually need to earn it. You start earning it though a strong apology, and you finish earning it by being transparent–and not repeating the mistake again.


This is the current list of blog posts addressing Nature’s decision to publish, that I am aware of:

Feel free to let me know if I’ve left someone off the list.


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