01 June 2015

Breaking brand: Science magazine’s latest self-inflicted crisis

Today in, “Did nobody think this was a bad idea?”, Science Careers ran this question and this answer (edited to cut to the chase):

Q: Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt. Not that this matters, but he’s married. What should I do?

A: I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can.

I wonder if Science’s editor, Marcia McNutt (the journal’s first woman editor, incidentally), would endorse this “shut up and smile” advice.

And you know what else bugs me? The way the question is phrased. “Not that it matters.” If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t be writing the question. If if didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be laws and rules and regulations about appropriate workplace behaviour. It seems like the questioner has already internalized the “shut up and smile” advice, to think nothing of this creepy behaviour. (Just pointed out to me that the “Not that it matters” probably refers to marital status rather than behaviour.)

I would like to point out that this seems to be part of a larger trend at Science magazine, which seems to be at “imminent meltdown.”

Let’s not forget that not that long ago, Science magazine ran a cover of trans women that removed their faces, focusing all attention on the sexual aspect of the image. If I remember right, the Science Careers editor did not react that situation gracefully, either. The tweet has been deleted, but was something along the lines of being bored by the outrage.

This comes on top of last week’s huge l’affair LaCour, in which a widely covered article co-authored by one Michael LaCour was retracted following revelations of data fabrication, lack of institutional approval to carry out the experiments, and lies on the LaCour’s CV.

So we have repeated screw-ups on the social front and on the science front (I have just picked out the most recent one). There’s also the launch of Science Advances, their pricey open access Zune journal run by someone who does not think open access is a good idea.

I feel like I’m watching this brand disintegrate.

Update, 11:02 am: Oh, the article is down (. Signs of impending retraction? I hope so. Meanwhile, here’s an archival version.

Update, 11:08 am: I hope Chris Chambers is wrong:

How long until @ScienceCareers issues a face-saving, mealy-mouthed “apology” to “those who were offended”. Someone is typing it as we speak.

Update, 11:11 am: Jon Tennant notes:

Alice Huang, the respondent, was president of the AAAS from 2010-11. Bet she helped inspire great values.

Update, 1:15 pm: And, as predicted, here’s the apology. It does leave me wondering what “proper editorial review” would have been, though. I’m having a hard time believing that anything on that website just zips up without review.

Update, 1:58 pm. Danielle Lee notes that this isn’t the first time Huang has dealt with sexual issues in the lab. In a previous article, Huang notes that a student who wants to pursue a relationship with someone senior to them can jeopardize her career. As Danielle puts it:

When grad student wants to flirt with advisor, Alice says no. But when Advisor hits on grad student, she says smile about it.
Update, 2:35 pm: Mark Baxter has my favourite bit of snark so far:
The editorial meeting at Science Careers.

Update, 4:36 pm: Ask Dr. Isis:

So what does the letter writer do about it? That’s the catch-22. The relative positions of power of those involved make this a difficult situation for the leer-ee relative to the leer-er. Dealing with harassment in the workplace is always an exercise in cost reward and no one can weigh those except the person in the situation. I have certainly put up with more than I was proud of in the interest of feeding my family.

There’s more, and it’s clear headed and nuanced.

Update, 5:12 pm: And Brenden Hunt points out another old column from Alice Huang that says the way people react to your appearance is your problem:

Remove the nose ring and hide your other decorations under a long-sleeved black turtleneck and jeans.

Additional, 2 June 2015: In a move that does not surprise, Huang thinks there was nothing wrong with her advice:

What I try to do is give advice from experience, and to give the advice that would serve the writer well into the long-term future. I’m taking their best interests to heart rather than being in one camp or another camp or trying to push my own political agendas.

Meanwhile, more good commentary is appearing. I particularly like Janet Stemwedel’s column and  Wandering Scientist, who offers another much more practical and nuanced set of suggestions than Huang.

Additional, 3 June 2015: Quartz magazine, which published one piece critical of Huang’s advice (Horrible advice on sexual harassment from an accomplished female scientist), publishes a second piece critical of Huang’s advice. Too bad the second piece has the clickbaity reaction title, “Self-righteous internet goons are calling one of America’s top female scientists sexist.”

The article agrees with the criticism (“Arguably, her advice was misguided”), but feels compelled to kvetch about “tone.”

Update, 5 June 2015: I’m pleasantly surprised that Science Careers collected a lot of reactions to Huang’s article. That a very positive thing to do, and I hope it is a bellwether that the Science Careers site will be more honestly engaged with critiques.

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