Journals Must Decide: Science or Censorship?

David Randall

Nature Communications has joined the parade of institutions that subordinate science to political censorship. The occasion was its publication of an article, the data of which suggests that women scientists don’t necessarily benefit from having female mentors. Nature Communications retracted the article, pressuring its authors into acquiescence, with both the journal and the authors bowing to political censorship.

The editors phrase this subordination in the modern cant of harm:

Studies of differences between groups or individuals on the basis of social, economic, biological or cultural variables are of high interest given their potential to address societal challenges. However, as a journal, we recognise that such studies also have the potential to cause harm (including inadvertently) to the studied groups or individuals and society at large. We encourage authors of these studies to consider the multiple potential implications of their research when describing their findings and contextualise them while keeping those implications in mind. ...

Editors may ask authors to include a statement of impact in their manuscript so the implications of the findings are made clear to referees during the peer-review process and to readers once the manuscript is published. ... Editors may seek advice about submitted papers not only from technical reviewers but also on any aspect of a paper that raises concerns. These may include, for example, ethical issues, issues of data or materials access or concerns related to implications for the group under study or broader societal implications of publishing a paper.

This vague but ominous policy prescribes 1) self-censorship by scientists about any research that contradicts the political dogma of the left establishment; and 2) “review” by laymen about a scientific paper’s “broader societal implications.” It incorporates the contemporary misuse of harm to mean psychological discomfort or truth that contradicts a favored ideology.

The idea that no scientific research should be allowed that might cause harm, even by a tight definition of harm, contradicts the spirit of disinterested inquiry. Would Nature Communications have banned Albert Einstein’s "Ist die Trägheit eines Körpers von seinem Energieinhalt abhängig?" because E = MC^2 would lead eventually to the atom bomb and the 200,000 dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Would it have refused publication of Fritz Haber’s work on artificial nitrogen fixation because Germany used the Haber Process during World War One to produce munitions for its armies? Should Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution have been aborted because the consequent increased population of the Earth has stressed countless environments? Using such stepladders of historical reasoning, virtually any scientific advance can be characterized as contributing to the evils of this world. There is no logical limit. New knowledge can always be applied to destructive ends. That is a sober reality, not a mandate to impede the search for knowledge or to suppress it once found.

In the case of the study Nature Communications retracted, which compares the careers of women scientists who had been mentored by either female or male scientists, the alleged “harm” is merely speculative. If the study’s findings are accurate, they might well point to a reduction in harm by encouraging women in the sciences to make unclouded judgments about their best options among available mentors.

Some of what Nature Communications recommends makes sense, such as the preference for pre-registration, Registered Reports, and careful archiving of the code used for computer-based modeling. But these virtues are outweighed by Nature Communications’ endorsement of censorship and its unfounded faith that scientists are competent to judge ethics and consequences. Worse is the implicit disdain Nature Communications’ policy presents toward the broader community it holds cannot be trusted to read and judge scientific research competently.


David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: National Cancer Institute, Public Domain

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