Here are some things that I know:
Nature is a high-impact scientific journal that is widely read in the scientific community.
The editorial mechanisms Nature employs are meant to ensure the quality of the publication.
Reports of scientific research submitted to Nature undergo peer review (as do manuscripts submitted to other scholarly scientific journals). As well, Nature publishes items that are not peer-reviewed -- for example, news pieces and letters to the editor. Nonetheless, the pieces published in Nature that don't undergo peer review are subjected to editorial oversight.
Our human mechanisms for ensuring the quality of items that are published are not perfect. Peer reviewers sometimes get fooled. Editors sometimes make judgments that, in retrospect, they would not endorse.
The typical non-scientist who knows about journals like Nature is in the position of being generally trusting that peer review and editorial processes do the job of ensuring the high quality of the contents of these journals, or of being generally distrusting. Moreover, my guess is that the typical non-scientist, innocent of the division of labor on the vast editorial teams employed by journals like Nature, takes for granted that the various items published in such journals reflect sound science -- or, at the very least, do not put forward claims that are clearly at odds with the body of existing scientific research.
Non-scientists, in other words, are trusting that the editorial processes at work in a journal like Nature produce a kind of conversation within the scientific community, one that weeds out stuff scientists would recognize as nonsense.
This trust is important because non-scientists do not have the same ability to identify and weed out nonsense. Nature is a kind of scientific gatekeeper for the larger public.
This trust is also something that can be played -- for example, by a non-expert with an agenda who manages to get a letter published in a journal like Nature. While such correspondence may not impress a scientist, a "publication in Nature" of this sort may be taken as credible by non-scientists on the basis of the trust they have that such a well-known scientific journal must have editorial processes that reliably weed out nonsense.
In a world where we divide the cognitive labor this way, where non-scientists need to trust scientists to build reliable knowledge and organs of scientific communication to weed out nonsense, the stakes are very high for the scientists and the organs of scientific communication to live up to that trust -- to get it right most of the time, and to be transparent enough about their processes that when they don't get it right it's reasonably easy to diagnose what went wrong and to fix it.
Otherwise, scientists and the organs of scientific communication risk losing the trust of non-scientists.
I've been thinking about this balance of trust and accountability in the context of a letter that was published in Nature asserting, essentially, that the underrepresentation of women as authors and peer reviewers in Nature is no kind of problem, because male scientists have merit and women scientists have child care obligations.
Kelly Hills has a clear and thorough explanation of what made publishing this particular letter problematic. It's not just that the assertion of the letter writer are not supported by the research (examples of which Kelly helpfully links). It's not just that there's every reason to believe that the letter writer will try to spin the publication of his letter in Nature as reason to give his views more credence.
It's also that the decision to publish this letter suggests the question of women's ability to do good science is a matter of legitimate debate.
In the discussion of this letter on Twitter, I saw the suggestion that the letter was selected for publication because it was representative of a view that had been communicated by many correspondents to Nature.
In a journal that the larger public takes to be a source of views that are scientifically sound, or at least scientifically plausible (rather than at odds with a growing body of empirical research), the mere fact that many people have expressed a view in letters strikes me as insufficient reason to publish it. I suspect that if a flurry of letters were to arrive asserting that the earth is stationary in the center of the universe, or that the earth is flat, that the editorial staff in charge of correspondence wouldn't feel the need to publish letters conveying these views -- especially if the letters came from people without scientific training or active involvement in scientific work of some sort. I'd even be willing to make a modest bet that Nature regularly gets a significant amount of correspondence communicating crackpot theories of one sort or another. (I'm not running a major organ of scientific communication and I regularly get a significant amount of correspondence communicating crackpot theories of one sort or another.) Yet these crackpot theories do not regularly populate Nature's "Correspondence" page.
In response to the objections raised to the publication of this letter, the Nature Editorial staff posted this comment:
Nature has a strong history of supporting women in science and of reflecting the views of the community in our pages, including Correspondence. Our Correspondence pages do not reflect the views of the journal or its editors; they reflect the views only of the correspondents.
We do not endorse the views expressed in this Correspondence (or indeed any Correspondences unless we explicitly say so). On re-examining the letter and the process, we consider that it adds no value to the discussion and unnecessarily inflames it, that it did not receive adequate editorial attention, and that we should not have published it, for which we apologize. This note will appear online on nature.com in the notes section of the Correspondence and in the Correspondence's pdf.
Nature's own positive views and engagement in the issues concerning women in science are represented by our special from 2013: www.nature.com/women
Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, Nature
(Bold emphasis added.)
I think this editorial pivot is a wise one. The letter in question may have represented a view many people have, but it didn't offer any new facts or novel insight. And it's not like women in science don't know that they are fighting against biases -- even biases in their own heads -- every single day. They didn't need to read a letter from some guy in Nature to become aware of this bit of their professional terrain.
So, the apology is good. But it is likely insufficient.
At this point, Nature may also have trust they need to rebuild with women, whether those women are members of the scientific community or members of the larger public. While it is true that Nature devoted a special issue to challenges faced by women in science, they also gave the editorial green light to a piece of "science fiction" that reinforced, rather than challenging the gendered assumption that make it harder for women in science.
And yes, we understand that different editors oversee the peer-reviewed reports of scientific research and the news items, the correspondence and the short fiction. But our view of organizations -- our trust of organizations -- tends to bundle these separate units together. This is pretty unavoidable unless we personally know each of the editors in each of the units (and even personal acquaintance doesn't mean our trust is indestructible).
All of which is to say: as an organization, Nature still has some work to do to win back the trust of women (and others) who cannot think of the special issue on women in science without also thinking of "Womanspace" or the letter arguing that underrepresentation of women in Nature's pages is just evidence of a meritocracy working as it should.
It would be nice to trust that Nature's editorial processes will go forth and get it right from here on out, but we don't want to be played for fools. As well, we may have to do additional labor going forward cleaning up the fallout from this letter in public discourses on women in science when we already had plenty of work to do in that zone.
This is a moment where Nature may want women scientists to feel warmly toward the journal, to focus on the good times as representative of where Nature really stands, but trust is something that is rebuilt, or eroded, over iterated engagements every single day.
Trust can't be demanded. Trust is earned.
Given the role Nature plays in scientific communications and in the communication of science to a broader public, I'm hopeful the editorial staff is ready to do the hard work to earn that trust -- from scientists and non-scientists alike -- going forward.
* * * * *
Hope Jahren, Why I Turned Down a Q-and-A in Nature Magazine
Anne Jefferson, Megaphones, broken records and the problem with institutional amplification of sexism and racism