An open letter to Nature editor Philip Campbell

Philip Campbell
Editor-in-Chief
Nature Magazine
cc: Nature editors & Executive Board

Dear Dr. Campbell,

On January 18th, one of your senior editors, Henry Gee, deliberately revealed the identity of female scientist-blogger Dr. Isis without her consent. By Gee’s own admission, this was in retaliation for Dr. Isis’ comments about problematic behavior that Gee has exhibited over the years.

As the members of a collaborative, pseudononymous blog about women in academia, we were appalled and alarmed by such behavior from an editor at an important scientific journal (and one with which some of us have professional relationships). There are many reasons why a scientific or academic blogger might want to write under a pseudonym instead of their name; it is no coincidence that a majority of such writers are women and others from groups that are disproportionately underrepresented in science and the Academy.

The risks are personal and professional. In our workplaces, when women do speak up about our experiences, we are branded as trouble-makers. The fact that women make up 50% of STEM undergraduate degrees, but only 17.6% of full professors highlights not only the importance of addressing institutional barriers to equality, but also the lack of security that many women feel in their positions. Speaking up also has a personal toll: we may be harassed or bullied; often, the nature of this harassment is violent, and may extend to our families and our workplaces.

Despite these risks, women speak out about the factors that influence our underrepresentation in science and the Academy. These factors include the kinds of institutional biases mentioned in a recent Nature editorial, as well as a hostile climate perpetuated by the recent letter-to-the-editor in Nature (for which you have since apologized), and the Womanspace short story published in 2011. We speak out about our experiences to draw attention to them, to seek advice and solidarity, and to create a safety valve.

Since our blog was created six months ago, Tenure, She Wrote has been viewed nearly 400,000 times and received enthusiastic support. Our pseudonymity allows us to be an important resource to members of the academic community, and allows us a voice in a conversation that we are repeatedly told by people in power is not important. We recognize that we are each taking a personal risk in writing this letter, given the hostile climate for women who speak out against online bullying and sexism. However, the weak response on the part of the Nature editors has left us with no choice other than to do so.

Henry Gee’s actions are not only reprehensible in their own right, they reflect poorly on Nature. Perhaps most critically, they demonstrate a lack of professionalism that compromises the very peer-review process that is the foundation of scientific publishing. Gee publicly dismissed a prominent woman scientist as “inconsequential” and told those who voiced concerns that they are “on a list”.

In response to Dr. Isis’ valid criticism, which Nature itself has acknowledged, Gee replied that “Nature quakes in its boots.” In this statement, Gee presumes to speak for Nature, and the editorial board at Nature has only today responded with a tepid press release distancing itself from the public comments of “a Nature editor” who is not even named.

We request that Nature take Henry Gee’s actions seriously, and see them for what they are: a bullying and harassment campaign undertaken by one of its editors whose purpose can only be to harm a female scientist who has been a critical figure in the online discourse about diversity in science. This is unacceptable.

We are alarmed that Gee will continue to have editorial responsibility over the manuscripts of individuals who have publicly commented on his actions. Although he has since (pseudononymously) apologized for some of his actions, he fails to address the deeper issues behind his behavior, which were not a mere Twitter indiscretion in the heat of the moment, but constitute an abuse of power.

Gee also mischaracterizes Dr. Isis’ critiques of his behavior as cyber-bullying, which indicates that he continues to fail to understand why those criticisms were made in the first place. We do not ask that Gee be “philosophically” a feminist, as he states in his apology; rather, we want him to understand how his actions and attitudes do very real harm to others, and for him to actively work to rectify that harm. Unfortunately, much of the damage is irreversible.

Given his lack of professionalism, as well as a history of publishing Nature: Futures stories with problematic and offensive treatments of race and gender (e.g., Womanspace, Takeaway, Are We Not Men), we believe that Henry Gee’s continued position as an editor of Nature contributes to a hostile climate that is antithetical to the promotion of diversity in science, and we do not support it.

Perhaps even more critically, Henry Gee’s harassment campaign is only the most recent in a series of troubling incidents at Nature, which are in direct contrast to editorials claiming to support women in science and academia. Clearly, the gender problems at Nature neither begin nor end with Henry Gee.

It is our hope that the editorial board takes this opportunity to not only continue to work to improve the climate for women in general, but particularly with respect to the behavior of their own organization. This means going beyond the publication of Careers features or editorials highlighting the gender imbalance in STEM fields, and actively addressing the institutional problems within Nature that contribute directly to that imbalance.

We invite other members of the academic, scientific, and blogging communities to co-sign this open letter.

Sincerely,

The Editors of Tenure, She Wrote

UPDATE: 

We recently received this response from Dr. Campbell, who has given us permission to post his response, which we have added below.

Dear Editors of ‘Tenure, She Wrote’,

I am writing in response to your e-mail of 24 January

My colleagues and I take the concerns you raise, and those raised by others, very seriously, and have now taken stock of them. We are embarking on a process of internal review of all of this – of the issues, the history of our content, and of actions and views expressed by us at Nature and by others. Most importantly, I feel strongly that we need to better understand and support diversity in the research community. I am considering with colleagues how Nature and Nature Publishing Group can best do that, and the variety of comments we have received from you and others will be reviewed in that forward-looking context too.

Sincerely

Philip Campbell

Philip Campbell PhD
Editor-in-Chief, Nature

 

134 thoughts on “An open letter to Nature editor Philip Campbell

  1. The arguments presented are not convincing at all.
    And the idea that ‘diversity’, whatever that can mean, should never be questioned is frightening.

    While some try to cure cancer, other fight for their own self serving purpose : Not the same league, never will be

    • Which arguments are not convincing? That there is a STEM diversity problem? That Henry Gee acted unprofessionally?

      Nowhere in this letter has anyone said that “diversity” should never be questioned (what does that even mean, exactly?).

      “Some try to cure cancer” — yes. Some. The diversity of people that get to “cure cancer” do not represent the diversity within the general population. Disproportionately, white males get to “cure cancer.” And that is not because white males are better at “curing cancer” than other people. Pointing this is is not self-serving; it’s society-serving. Because if we want to cure cancer, we should have the best people working on it, not just the most privileged. Don’t you agree?

    • As @miuaf recently tweeted: You can claim any power structure is a meritocracy, just by defining “merit” as the ability to thrive in that power structure.

      If grades, grants, publications, speaking invitations at scientific meetings are biased against some scientists because of their age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion (and there is good evidence that all of this does in fact occur), then science cannot possibly function as a pure (scientific) meritocracy. To claim otherwise is to ignore a vast amount of data. To claim otherwise is to reject evidence. To reject science.

      Why Nicolas want to do that? One can only wonder.

  2. Absolutely co-signed as another who has had a different science supervisor stand over me and spittle scream at me because I am not open and clear enough, but am not diplomatic enough when I am clear, too high pitched a voice, made him do it by being “frustrating,” ect, ect, ect. And being dealt with as an instigator because I did not know the exact magic words to communicate why this was a problem for me, when reporting what had happen, chronologically.

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  5. I think it’s pretty straightforward, really: sexism is wrong. He’s had multiple chances to listen to the criticisms, apologize sincerely, and rectify his behavior. He hasn’t.

    You know who I feel sorry for? The women he’s bullied. The people of color who read the stories he publishes in Futures that mock them. The people who, every single day, are made to feel inferior, and who leave their chosen calling because they can’t tolerate a hostile climate anymore.

    People should take responsibility for their actions. Instead, like Gee, they often double-down. They claim they are being threatened and bullied, when in reality what they are experiencing is nothing close to what women and minorities experience on a daily basis. The “mob,” as you call it (which is a really problematic term, by the way) -is- right: sexism is wrong. If you don’t agree with that, then yeah, I don’t know what else to say to you, and you’re not going to win this or any argument.

  6. “Dr. Isis” is a reprehensible coward. A public outing was well-deserved, given that “Dr. Isis” feels it’s fine to harass and bully others behind a cloak of anonymity, yet never had to deal with the acountability that comes with genuine identity. Good on Dr. Campbell for forcing “Dr. Isis” to take responsibility for it’s actions.

    • You are entitled to your own opinion. We have addressed this elsewhere in the comments, and I feel we have made the case that pseudonyms are valuable parts of the online academic and scientific discourses in this post.

      • I wonder if the people who feel the need to pop in to say that they don’t like Dr. Isis, therefore Nature should continue with its overall pattern of misogyny realize that that’s what they’re saying. Did they even read the post? There’s a pattern and practice even if you remove the most recent Dr. Isis outing. She’s a distraction. And these Dr. Isis shamers are seriously distracting from real and systemic problems in science and specifically with one of the top two journals in science.

    • Shorter Paula Ogilvie: The bitch had it coming.

      That view, however, cleanly misses the entire point of the above letter, which Ogilvie appears unwilling or unable to parse. Since this thread is about the issues addressed by the above letter, I’d suggest, with all due respect, that Ogilvie’s opinion is irrelevant.

  7. Pingback: An open letter to Nature editor Philip Campbell | One Good Dose

  8. Are others not allowed to disagree with the Acclimatrix? Will s/he stop redressing everyone who thinks differently from her/him? I happen to agree that Isis is generally abusive in her writing, though entertaining at times, in a mean-spirited way. I’m not a fan of Gee, but Isis should not be shocked to receive what she dishes.

    • Disagreement is absolutely allowable; I never indicated otherwise (and I should mention that I’m just one of many authors on this blog, and I don’t speak for everyone). And yes, we will continue respond to comments because this is a conversation. Because this is a blog for tenure-track women academics, there are particular viewpoints that we won’t allow to go unchallenged (e.g., there is no sexism in science, women who complain about sexism are whining). We also have a responsibility, as the blog editors, to keep comments topical and respectful, and this

      And yes, I do get frustrated when I see the same arguments over and over again that appear to miss the point (like “Isis should not be shocked to receive what she dishes” — we’ve explained elsewhere how this is not equivalent behavior). It is my hope that addressing those comments is useful not only for people who we are responding to, but also for the many readers who are lurking. So, yes, when I have the time and energy to do so, I will redress comments that perpetuate sexist or otherwise problematic attitudes.

  9. Cosigned.

    I find DrIsis abrasive and her blog readers as aggressive and partisan – I gave up reading and commenting at her blog because there are enough real world opportunities for a non-human-bio, non-girly, birkenstock-wearing, non-superstar, childless female STEM academic to be made to feel like she doesn’t belong and is doing it wrong. However, that is NO reason for her to have been treated as she has, and she has handled it with grace and style.

    I am 100% against the sort of behaviour we’ve seen from Nature and from this specific editor over this particular incident and over the longer term pattern of misogyny, whether I am bff or sworn enemies or anything in between with the woman in question.

  10. Nature may be better off without Gee. They will definitely be better off with an explicit policy on how they will protect privacy, including psudeonimity on the internet and reviewers in peer review. They have a real problem with privacy, and that is only likely to get more complicated with time. They must ensure this does not happen again.

    The scientific establishment, not just Nature, also has a real problem with sexism.

    However, I doubt the scientific establishment will be better off without Gee. You see, I’ve talked to Gee in person about sexism. He is incredible resistant to understanding power dynamics in modern sociological terms. Accordingly, he has huge privilege blind spots. He sees personal threats in people disagreeing with him, a human flaw that gets intensified in an ugly way when combined with the blind spots. And…. he still works hard to be a decent person, as he sees it. The problems with Gee are not extreme, indeed they are all to common. There are many Gees among us.

    The scientific establishment will definitely be better off if the next time someone screws up we collectively work to respond in a way that can lead to them actually learning. In this sense, the scientific establishment will be better off if we take a step back from the methods of Dr. Isis in this episode. And I can’t help believing that scientists would be better off if we did not view each other as disposable humans, encouraging our employers to do so as well. In that, I include Gee, Isis, and anyone cosigning this letter who has never met Gee nor made any effort outside of reading blogs (other than his) to determine whether his behavior can change or not.

    • Your points about people reacting defensively are very apt, and are a reason why it can be very important to have close friends and colleagues (including men) who are willing to discuss these issues with you when you’ve been called out. It is my hope, at least, that in addressing these issues, we will also help others to learn, and to promote conversations that will help to address sexism at an institutional level.

      We’re not advocating that Gee no longer have a place in the scientific establishment: in this letter, we only refer to Nature.

      As for the last part of your comment, I wonder: what would that look like? There are a lot of resources out there for people to educate themselves on sexism and privilege. You yourself admitted that when you’ve tried to talk to Gee, he has privilege blind spots. In my experience, even trying to talk to someone nicely results in defensiveness, angry, and doubling-down. Certainly, most of us don’t have the opportunity to talk to Gee personally. I doubt many of us would feel safe in doing so. How else could we “determine whether his behavior can change or not?” This kind of behavior has gone on for years, and Gee has had ample opportunity to educate himself or to listen to others, like you, who have approached him. At what point do we say he’s crossed a line in his professional capacity?

      As for the “methods of Dr. Isis,” do you include this letter in that category, or are you speaking generally? Because as we’ve addressed elsewhere in comments, the Tone Argument is a distraction from the real issues.

      • Being an editor at Nature is a privilege, not a right. When someone abuses power, and refuses or is unable to stop that abuse, they should be removed from power. It is fine to feel sorry for Henry Gee, but I feel much sorrier for all the women and minorities he has negatively affected, continues to negatively affect, and will negatively affect in the future.

        Gee has been given Plenty of chances to learn, instead he digs in. Wouldn’t our collective energy be better spent doing science than trying to reform those particularly resistant to reform? Wouldn’t there be greater spillover effects on culture if we stopped letting people be driven out by removing sexist and racist gatekeepers rather than trying to reform a few gatekeepers who don’t want to change?

        Can I feel sorry for the non sexist non racist person who would have had Gee’s job and all the other non sexist non racist people who would be employed at nature or would still be doing science if it weren’t for nature?

        If someone having a privilege blindspot keeps deserving women and minorities from doing science, it isn’t clear to me why more women and minorities should suffer while we try to fix someone who clearly does not want (or deserve) to be fixed. Sure, make henry gee your side-project, but make him harmless first. Heck he might be more willing to listen if he’s no longer the one with all the power.

    • I have met Gee. I agree with your basic assessment of his (lack of) character but disagree that he is redeemable. He may not be extreme, in the sense that there are many such assholes in science, but science would definitely be better off without him.

      It’s not as though there were any shortage of scientists who also happen to be decent human beings clamoring to take the assholes’ places. Including Gee’s.

    • ” They have a real problem with privacy,”
      Becca, are there any known issues with privacy and Nature/Gee except the current example? I am of not aware of any.

      “The problems with Gee are not extreme, indeed they are all to common. There are many Gees among us.”
      Exactly. Focusing on one person doesn’t solve the problem of sexism. The only positive result is that it strengthens group solidarity (the real purpose of scapegoating).

    • “And I can’t help believing that scientists would be better off if we did not view each other as disposable humans, encouraging our employers to do so as well.” Very well said!

      • We don’t think that scientists should view others as disposable, either, which is why we actively work to promote the welfare of individuals who are most often marginalized– women, people of color, disabled folks, and our LGBT colleagues.

  11. Cosigned.

    Gee lacks judgement and Isis is abrasive. Isis may have excellent points, but her obnoxious approach limits them from reaching a larger and potentially more influential crowd. In many ways they complement each other perfectly.

  12. Unfortunately nature is full of this kind of stench. The arrogance of all the editors is appalling. Authors should boycott the journal – it will not take long for the arrogance to correct itself as competitive journals gain in prominence

  13. What occurs to me when reading different peoples’ opinions of who is ‘more wrong’ than the other, is that “two wrongs do not make a right”, no matter what other issues there are.

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  16. You still have not explained how you determined that the tweets that were sent about Gee did not constitute bullying, even though they fall under the accepted definition. It seems like you are saying that the complaints can be dismissed under the tone argument yet the link you provided does not support this. I think we should be careful about ignoring accepted definitions of bullying and scapegoating (what is occurring here re gee).

    A ton of work has been done studying these very human behaviors in groups from families to K-12 schools to academia and other workplaces. The behaviors are consistent and identifiable. There are some good academic blogs which make the material accessible. There is no reason to believe the sci com community would be exempt. You said “mobbing” is problematic but again it fits the description. It is bizarre to say it is okay to employ all these behaviors in the service of anti-racism and anti-sexism.

    • FYI, I deleted all of your previous comments and my responses to you (at your request) and have changed this blog’s setting to fully moderated. I am editing your comment to remove the off-topic references. Please keep your future comments on-topic and in compliance with our comment policy.

      Many of us in this thread and elsewhere have addressed how Isis’ comments about Gee do not constitute bullying; I will not repeat them; they are easy to find. I don’t know how to state things any more clearly. Obviously, you disagree; I think we’re at an impasse.

      If others are interested in engaging you, they are welcome to. I am withdrawing from this discussion (with you), but we will continue to moderate comments closely.

      • You didn’t edit anything out of my comment (I took a screen shot-it’s all there).

        I didn’t see any arguments or analyses and I did read the thread and follow the link. It is possible that it is true re impossibility of bullying because of RL power differential, but as others have pointed out Isis is influential in the twittersphere and has many fairly powerful people in her corner. How many times were the goatfucker tweets retweeted? According to some he had blogged previously about being depressed. Did others know that when they tweeted repeatedly that he was “crazy”? But I don’t know the timeline of those tweets so I can’t say. Would love to see a more meta analysis of this whole drama.

        It is definitely possible to scapegoat someone in a more powerful position. There is a lot of going after targets around here that is condoned and it is having a negative effect on the community. Now demanding his firing seems way over the top.

        Outing her was totally wrong and I was surprised he took so long to take it down. Still it’s a big annoyance to have to always hear it framed as “Isis was in the midst of a critique of the sexist policies of Nature and Gee outed her to silence her”.

    • I have commented elsewhere how “Dr Isis’s” and her supporters’ comments on Twitter constitute nothing more than simple cyberbullying – as defined by my daughter’s former secondary school’s published policies, and which constituted an offence in that environment. Having been on the receiving end of some of the same for simply pointing this out, I can testify to the juvenility and personal nature of much of the commentary.

      Bullying is bullying – whether it is in a “good cause” or not.

      • We have explicitly addressed this comment elsewhere, repeatedly. Discussions of Dr. Isis’ tone are a derail, and are not relevant to this post. Feel free to comment on them in your own forum; otherwise, I ask that you keep your comments topical. Our post, and our letter, are not “bullying.” And fortunately, as evidenced by the response we got from Nature, the editors of that journal don’t think so, either.

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  18. Cosigned.

    There’s a lot of discussion about who deserved what, which seems utterly bizarre and pointless to me. Dr. Gee acted in an irresponsible manner completely inconsistent with his position as an editor at Nature. I have no opinion on consequences from this point forward, just that these actions need to be recognized for what they are (that is, completely wrong for a person with Dr. Gee’s job title to do) and Dr. Gee’s superiors at Nature need to issue an apology – it doesn’t have to be specifically to Dr. Isis, it has to be an apology to the wider scientific community.

    In case my real name doesn’t come through: I am Martin Brummell, a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan. I plan to submit a manuscript to a Nature journal in the near future, but that issue seems better for a different venue, at a different time.

    Thank you for writing this letter.

  19. For what is worth, as another “inconsequential scientist”, but more importantly, as the father of a young woman aspiring to become a brain scientist, I completely support your statements.

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    • We did receive a response (though I’m curious as to how you knew that, since we hand’t announced it). We waited until we had permission from Dr. Campbell to post his reply, as his email comes with a confidentiality statement. It has been added to the main body of the blog.

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