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When your cover photo says less about the story and more about who you imagine you’re talking to.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The choice of cover of the most recent issue of Science was not good. This provoked strong reactions and, eventually, an apology from Science‘s editor-in-chief. It’s not the worst apology I’ve seen in recent days, but my reading of it suggests that there’s still a gap between the reactions to the cover and the editorial team’s grasp of those reactions.

So, in the interests of doing what I can to help close that gap, I give you the apology (in block quotes) and my response to it:

From Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt:

Science has heard from many readers expressing their opinions and concerns with the recent [11 July 2014] cover choice.

The cover showing transgender sex workers in Jarkarta was selected after much discussion by a large group

I suppose the fact that the choice of the cover was discussed by many people for a long time (as opposed to by one person with no discussion) is good. But it’s no guarantee of a good choice, as we’ve seen here. It might be useful to tell readers more about what kind of group was involved in making the decision, and what kind of discussion led to the choice of this cover over the other options that were considered.

and was not intended to offend anyone,

Imagine my relief that you did not intend what happened in response to your choice of cover. And, given how predictable the response to your cover was, imagine my estimation of your competence in the science communication arena dropping several notches. How well do you know your audience? Who exactly do you imagine that audience to be? If you’re really not interested in reaching out to people like me, can I get my AAAS dues refunded, please?

but rather to highlight the fact that there are solutions for the AIDS crisis for this forgotten but at-risk group. A few have indicated to me that the cover did exactly that,

For them. For them the cover highlighted transgender sex workers as a risk group who might get needed help from research. So, there was a segment of your audience for whom your choice succeeded, apparently.

but more have indicated the opposite reaction: that the cover was offensive because they did not have the context of the story prior to viewing it, an important piece of information that was available to those choosing the cover.

Please be careful with your causal claims here. Even with the missing context provided, a number of people still find the cover harmful. This explanation of the harm in the context of what the scientific community, and the wider world, can be like for a trans*woman, spells it out pretty eloquently.

The problem, in other words, goes deeper than the picture not effectively conveying your intended context. Instead, the cover communicated layers of context about who you imagine as your audience — and about whose reality is not really on your radar.

The people who are using social media to explain the problems they have with this cover are sharing information about who is in your audience, about what our lives in and with science are like. We are pinging you so we will be on your radar. We are trying to help you.

I am truly sorry for any discomfort that this cover may have caused anyone,

Please do not minimize the harm your choice of cover caused by describing it as “discomfort”. Doing so suggests that you still aren’t recognizing how this isn’t an event happening in a vacuum. That’s a bad way to support AAAS members who are women and to broaden the audience for science.

and promise that we will strive to do much better in the future to be sensitive to all groups and not assume that context and intent will speak for themselves.

What’s your action plan going forward? Is there good reason to think that simply trying hard to do better will get the job done? Or are you committed enough to doing better that you’re ready to revisit your editorial processes, the diversity of your editorial team, the diversity of the people beyond that team whose advice and feedback you seek and take seriously?

I’ll repeat: We are trying to help you. We criticize this cover because we expect more from Science and AAAS. This is why people have been laboring, patiently, to spell out the problems.

Please use those patient explanations and formulate a serious plan to do better.

* * * * *
For this post, I’m not accepting comments. There is plenty of information linked here for people to read and digest, and my sense is this is a topic where thinking hard for a while is likely to be more productive than jumping in with questions that the reading, digesting, and hard thinking could themselves serve to answer.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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