January 16th, 2014 by Kelly
In December, Nature published an editorial reporting on the results of their effort to broaden diversity in their pagest to increase the number of women contributing to their content. Some of the news is good (an increase in female authors) and some isn’t (a decrease in referees). Overall, though, it seemed like a nice bit of accountability, showing the actual effort being made to move away from the Old Boys Club of science.
Which they then went and undid completely this month, by publishing the following letter (right) from Lukas Koube, titled Research: Publish on the Basis of Quality, Not Gender.
Where do you even start with something like this? Do you start with the blatant misogyny? The barely-veiled Men’s Rights Activist language? The false idea that women aren’t represented in the sciences because they have babies? Do you just pound your head against the desk until you feel better? Maybe you ask Nature WTF they were thinking. Unfortunately, you won’t like that answer, either:
Well, I guess you could talk about “whatever his provenance”: a bit of quick sleuthing from Anna Goldstein yesterday found this wonderful anti-feminist, misogynistic screed from Koube; not exactly the sort of thing you’d think Nature would want to give any legitimacy to (and yet). We could talk about the ‘author’ (a term I use loosely) having just received his BA in political science, not exactly the sort of person you’d look to for authority on scientific research and publishing. We could continue having a conversation about what it means to confer authority on a letter, or blog, by publishing it under the auspices of a respected organization, regardless of the fact that correspondence is not supposed to reflect the views of anyone but the person writing it (at least in typical magazine disclaimer).
But all of that continues to dance around the single, central issue revealed in both Koube’s letter and Nature’s explanation/defense of publication: multiple people wrote in expressing misogynistic beliefs, and Nature chose one letter out of those many as representative and published it.
Women know that there is misogyny in science, academia, humanities, the work space, the world. We face it every single day. Many of us can’t get out of the house without facing it, let alone get through a work day without being reminded that people think we are less than, not as smart, not as capable, all because our reproductive organs happen to be on the inside.
And we have the research that shows the bias against women is real. We have so much research on it, Nature took the steps mentioned in their December editorial to try to combat the under-representation of women in their pages. For well over four years, people have been discussing The Feminist Philosophers’ Gendered Conference Campaign and the idea of boycotting conferences that have all-male (or all white male) conference panels.
We get it.
Really, truly, and honestly, women know this.
I understand the dilemma of letters to the editor and correspondence pages–remember, I used to work for an academic bioethics journal! If you want to see letters, angry letters that can span the range of opinions of valid to “did we remember to lock all the doors?”, try reading those for a month.
But at the same time, I understand that at some point, you have to drop the idea that you are going to give fair airing to “all sides.” False balance is a plague upon publishing, and there needs to come a point where you–in this case, the editors of the correspondence section of Nature–draw a line in the sand and simply refuse to give ink to ideas that have been soundly refuted with science.
Not doing so doesn’t just reflect badly on the ‘author’ of the correspondence, but the organization doing the publishing. If you communicate about science, and you do so with authority, you have a responsibility for what you produce. Shirk that responsibility often enough, or continue to promote via publication ideas that are anathema and offensive to a section of your audience that you are trying to improve your outreach to, and you’re going to lose that audience permanently.
Edited to add:
Nature apologized for publishing the commentary on Friday. My response to that apology is here.