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

 

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

  1. Hear hear!

    My supervisor is planning on submitting one of my papers to Nature.

    As a young woman, I can’t help but wonder whether my real name being first author will cause the paper, to be chucked in the “reject” bin, based on Nature’s obvious antipathy towards female scientists.

    • have you thought about just using your initials, for all the authors? I am a supporter of anonymity for papers being submitted to referees, as well as the referees being anonymous. We could start this process in a practical way by only using initials – but it has to be for everyone on the paper, with their consent of course, or it would be no better than publishing a name. (Yes, I know refs could look it up and see who the authors were, but it could be a start).

      • My choice to use my full first name is deliberate – I remember being a teenager looking into the scientific literature and seeing a dearth of female names, and the happy thrill when I did see a female name. I imagine other female scientists use their initials for the very reasons you describe – and it was a real concern for me, one my supervisor and my post-doc were both very frank in discussing it with me. I chose to use my full name in hopes of encouraging those who come after, knowing full well that my gender may earn me backlash from those who came before. I will not erase my gender from my publications.

        • fair enough, personally I have chosen to do the same when I was publishing … but this is just an idea some may like to consider. If everyone did it all the time, then it would just be standard practice (like having music auditions behind a screen, which increases the number of female players in orchestras which have this practice).

          By the way, same applies to female authors in recent history… some still use their initials only and I think that is sad but they must see a benefit in doing so.

  2. Co-sign… with my real name, which, as Acclimatrix notes, is a risk I am taking as a scientist who may very well submit her work to Nature one of these days.

  3. it seems quite clear to me that “the list” is “of people who use the cloak of anonymity to defame and bully”, and refers to MyTChondria calling him an asshole (not to both MyT & Tomasson). I agree with the overall message of the letter, but the attempt to spin every single action as a coordinated behavior to target people in a professional context bothers me a lot.

    • That was not clear to everyone. Regardless, I strongly feel (as do others) that there is a difference between calling someone out for their actions and harassment. It was unprofessional, in my opinion. I certainly would be very, very concerned about submitting papers to Nature at this point, given that I have made comments in my own name on this topic. I also recommend that you familiarize yourself with the Tone Argument: it is quite apt here: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument

      • Thanks – but to be clear, I do not see any problem with the tone here and I would not use such argument to dismiss anyone’s point. I took issue with the content, since I do not see that exchange of tweets as evidence that there is “a list” meant to harm those people in a professional context. That’s just the spin machine. Content, not tone. I understand that might not be clear to everyone, which is why I chose to express it… Otherwise, I fully agree with you – indeed, I share your concern, and I think there was a lot going on during that conversation that supports it. I just think trying to spin unrelated statements erodes rather than supports the argument!

        • Thanks for your clarifications. I absolutely disagree that this is the spin machine: I wrote it because I am honestly concerned that my comments to Gee’s Twitter account under my actual name will cause problems for me if I were to submit to Nature in the future. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Gee could be my editor. If he’s been vindictive before, he could be vindictive again.

          • yeah, I totally understand your concern, and I agree you have every reason to be concerned, the evidence for vindictiveness, and so on. But I still think “the list” thing is reading too much into it, and my fear is that trying to spin these into the argument may lead some to question the rest of it (“well, if this is the evidence they’re using to support their point, then maybe…”). If anything, because I agree with the rest of the letter, I was trying to point out something that imho weakened its argument so it could be changed to strengthen it – if you agreed with my point, which you don’t, so this is probably already one-too-many comments on this 🙂

          • There might be some justification for it being a personal “asshole” list if he’d published from a non-Nature account and not done so in the context of discussion of his professional behaviour. I became aware of the discussion when he made “the list” tweet – and even without the context of the discussion it sounded like a list of people he’d never let publish.

          • I never said it was a Nature account; from his other tweets, Gee made it clear he felt he could speak for Nature. And regardless, his behavior was inappropriate for a journal editor; clearly Nature agrees, hence the press release and Gee deleting his account.

          • yep, he definitely thought that he could speak on behalf of Nature when he directly invoked them to express an opinion. And that is pretty scary.

  4. “By Gee’s own admission, this was in retaliation for Dr. Isis’ comments about problematic behavior that Gee has exhibited over the years.”

    I think that this could be made a little clearer. It implies (to me at least) that Gee admits that his behaviour has been problematic. We may think that’s the case, but he doesn’t. He merely admits that he was retaliating to comments made.

    Otherwise, good letter.

    • Good point — it was meant to highlight that he admits outing Isis was retaliative. But you’re spot on that he doesn’t see any issues with his behavior.

  5. Co-signed, which is unlikely to harm me professionally as I have no intention of submitting my work to a journal with an editorial staff that’s incapable of screening out blatantly sexist content

    • I assume this was aimed at my comment. I admire your principled stance here, and have been tempted to take it myself for this and other reasons, but I am just not ready to say that as an early-career investigator in a very competitive environment that I will not submit my work – even as a co-author – to a Nature journal. Remember, as Nicholas Evans writes, “Nature publishes sixty-two journals, and has a controlling stake in the Frontiers open access publisher. They also…own Scientific American.”

  6. It’s true, the above story is very selective about the facts. Dr Isis is more than happy to lift things on peoples personal webpages, call people goatfucker, attribute writings that she disagrees with to Henry and cc his employer. The white washing of DrIsis and NOW she’s the victim is pretty difficult to swallow. She isn’t blameless. Further, the ‘outing’ is over rated. Just google ‘Who is Dr Isis’ and the answer has been out there for years. It’s ridiculous.

    Further, it’s VERY obvious from the twitter feed that ‘the list’ that henry refers to is the list of people who think he’s ‘an asshole’. It’s very clear and it’s been mischaracterized to support this DrIsis, the pope, the victim narrative that is simply ridiculous. As for the argument that Dr Isis is simply vulgar and that her swearing shouldn’t be considered harassment – how about if someone publicly calls you a ‘goatfucker’? Is that legitimate criticism. Anyone who isn’t a blinder fanboy/girl of Dr Isis can objectively say no. Name calling is not constructive criticism, it is harassment.

    Yes, there are problems with Henry – that woman space article showed poor judgement but this ‘outing of Dr. Isis’? It is simply the spatting of two people who were acting like school children over twitter and made bad choices. It’s eye rolling and ridiculous. Grow the hell up.

    I suggest you go back and re-write you letter that is more consistent with the facts and less biased (if you can actually do that.)

    • 1) This is not selective about facts; Dr. Isis’ reputation for an aggressive tone is known to anyone following these events.

      2) Gee’s meaning with regard to the “list” absolutely not clear; if it was, there wouldn’t be so many people who pointed it out. Particularly in context, it’s very troubling. You may not be troubled; your mileage may vary.

      3) I refer you to the Tone Argument: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument While you may quibble with the efficacy of calling someone a “goat-fucker,” it’s not the job of folks in power to determine what tone women, people of color, or folks from other underrepresented groups should use when they react to abusive or problematic treatment.

      4) I refer you to the TSW comments policy. Please keep your comments topical, respectful, and without personal attacks.

      5) You are welcome to write your own letter, in your own space.

      6) I would remind you that this is not merely a playground spat. Gee started this with repeated instances of problematic behavior. Isis and others reacted. Don’t derail the conversation by focusing on the fact Isis wasn’t polite enough for your tastes.

    • It is possible that readers of the tweet from Gee to MyTChondria mis-interpreted his intent, but the recipient of that tweet interpreted it as a threat to out her, and the recipient’s interpretation (and its consequences for her) is more important.

      And you are also misreading Isis’s tweets that sparked the outing. Isis asked the Nature editor who was responsible for approving the correspondence, after the Nature editor asked her to write a letter to Nature with her thoughts. Isis’s tweets show that she would only consider it worth her while to write the letter if the Correspondence-approver was not Gee. (Tweets today from her further clarify that she felt it wasn’t worth her while to address Gee’s actions, since there had been no consequences for him following Womanspace or his behavior at SciO in 2010.) It was within this context of professional dialog between the Nature editor and Isis that Gee saw his name used and retaliated by outing her.

      Finally, we’ve linked to the tone argument several times in the comment thread already. Please familiarize yourself with it.

      • I am aware of the tone argument but you seem to want it bother ways. For example, you state that we need to consider how MyTChondria interpreted Gees posts (however incorrectly) and therefore that is what needs to be focus on. Well, how about Gee? If Gee found Dr. Isis’s personal insults and threats to his employment as threatening.. – should we consider that? Is the tone argument only to be applied to women?

        You can’t eat your cake and have it too.

        As for the power dynamic, that Gee has so much more power than Dr. Isis I will parrot a commenter on another site. This is an outdated view of the world. With every tweet, Isis speaks to over 6000+ people and many more through retweeting, she has a widely read blog and does hold considerable power. She has lifted personal information from people’s Facebook pages and has allowed her forums to be used to expose people’s personal lives for their professional bladders (e.g. Olfek). Henry has made some serious errors but the latest twitter spat (in isolation) is well within actions that Dr Isis has participated in herself.

        Just because she’s a woman it doesn’t make her automatically powerless.

        • No, I don’t, because I I don’t see them the same, at all. If Gee acts in a way that is unprofessional and detrimental to women and people of color, telling his employer is not a “threat,” because what Gee is doing is patently false.

          For the record, the things Isis has pointed to from “personal” Facebook pages were PUBLIC statements that were well-known and widely disseminated when she commented on them. She didn’t violate pseudonymity. What someone says in social media is open for public comment.

          You clearly don’t understand the tone argument: it refers to power dynamics. Sexism and racism exist; that is not up for comment on this blog. You simply cannot argue that women aren’t underrepresented in STEM: we have data. And we have ample peer-reviewed studies that illustrate exactly why this is, and what’s needed to fix it. I’m not reinforcing 1950’s gender roles by pointing out that there are existing institutional power dynamics– I am stating an objective fact.

          Stop equating the actions of bullies and abusers with the actions of people who are calling them out. This is the last time I’m going to ask nicely.

        • I never said that how Gee interpreted Isis’s exchange with the Nature editor is not relevant. But however he interpreted that exchange (which contained neither insults or threats, btw), his behavior following it is completely professionally unacceptable for all of the reasons that our letter and so many other people have pointed out. That is the issue. The rest is derailment.

        • Gee threatened Isis’s career, family, and friends by outing her and the careers of all women scientists with his sexism. He did so from his position as a powerful gatekeeper in science. You’re still talking about the tone argument in isolation from the power dynamics at play. Gee’s job gives him power over people’s careers and his actions in that position deserve scrutiny and criticism. When you are in that kind of position, it is absolutely ok for people to criticize you and call for your job when you do it badly. Gee’s personal safety wasn’t threatened and his personal life wasn’t used against him. He has the power over people’s careers, behaved very badly in that capacity and was called out on it. His job _should_ be in jeopardy, whether he outed Dr. Isis or a blogger who gets only a few pageviews a day. Isis isn’t powerless, but that’s partly because she refuses to be polite and speaks with a pseudonym, instead of an identity that’s frequently dismissed or not taken seriously.

        • AGAIN. Henry hardly outed Isis and put her safety in danger.

          Anyone who was really interested in figuring out who she was (and had rudimentary internet sleuthing skills) could easily determine her true identity. Isis says this herself in her latest blog post.

          So claiming that “Gee threatened Isis’s career, family, and friends by outing her…” is nothing more than hyperbole.

          • It’s not hyperbole. And if it was do easy to find out, why did Gee need to announce it? What was the purpose if not to cause harm? You act as though this is the first time a group of internet trolls has ganged up on a woman who speaks out. It happens. All. The. Time.

            I don’t know what you hope to get out of this exchange, but perhaps you might take a moment to listen to the many voices speaking out on this, and consider that our points are valid. There is a serious problem with STEM diversity and it results from individual and institutional actions. If you don’t agree, then I have nothing more to say to you.

          • It’s not hyperbole. And if it was do easy to find out, why did Gee need to announce it? What was the purpose if not to cause harm? You act as though this is the first time a group of internet trolls has ganged up on a woman who speaks out. It happens. All. The. Time.

            I don’t know what you hope to get out of this exchange, but perhaps you might take a moment to listen to the many voices speaking out on this, and consider that our points are valid. There is a serious problem with STEM diversity and it results from individual and institutional actions. If you don’t agree, then I have nothing more to say to you.

        • I’m not going to explain Gee’s actions. He has already done so in his on-line letter…. which you complain was done pseudoanonymously — BUT his names is directly on a link on his apology page so I don’t understand your criticism of that. Further, his pseudonym was also ‘outed’ many times on twitter after the event and there was no complaints about that so isn’t that quid pro quo?

          I have listened to the voices here and I see a concerning lack of objectiveness, a disturbing level of hypocrisy ,and a willingness to mischaracterize events to push forward an agenda. I see the cause you are working for as being extremely serious and I feel these childish twitter/blog rages trivialize a very serious issue.

          People know Dr. Isis. She is a brilliant scientist and blogger who tip-toes the line extremely well. However, when you are on the line ultimately you do step over it on occasion and that’s the consequences of being edgy. She’s personally insulted many people and Henry was the first to be caught at a bad time, and by his own omission, made a bad choice.

          As I said before, we can agree to disagree. I won’t sign your petition as I disagree with your methods. I will, however, do all I can to support effective and worthwhile efforts to advance the respect and opportunities that women deserve in the workplace and in particular the sciences.

          All the best to you.

    • Great comment – and as someone personally attacked by Dr Isis and her ilk, I can only vigorously support you in saying “Name calling is not constructive criticism, it is harassment”. However, they have gone a lot further than that: they have publicly and persistently called for Henry Gee to be fired, because he is irredeemably sexist. That is persecution – and it happened to me too.
      And it’s “Womanspace”, incidentally. It wasn’t an article, it was a short-short story. Otherwise: “It is simply the spatting of two people who were acting like school children over twitter and made bad choices. It’s eye rolling and ridiculous. Grow the hell up”. Viva!

      • I’m not sure who “they” are, but I request that you please follow our Comment Policy and keep your comments relevant, respectful, and topical. This is not the place to discuss your personal feelings about Dr. Isis.

        We are not calling for Gee to be removed from his position at Nature because “he is irredeemably sexist” (though he has certainly had many opportunities to change his behavior). We are calling for his removal because of his systematic lack of professionalism, which includes persistent sexism that is not in line with Nature’s own stance on improving diversity in science. Which you would know if you read the letter.

    • It’s a semantic error on my part. Corporate structures are not my strong suit! I was referring to the collective editors of Nature. The press release isn’t attributed to anyone in particular, so our thought was to refer to everyone collectively.

  7. I’m an early-career scientist who may be submitting a manuscript to a Nature journal in the near future, so I don’t feel comfortable signing my real name. But I cosign as well.

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