Science Magazine publishes "opinion" piece targeting a specific student w/ sexist "critique" and then won’t publicly discuss what happened or what they will do about it

Well, I can't even begin to explain how disappointed I am in AAAS and Science Magazine over their actions recently. An "opinion" article was published last week in the "Working Life" section of Science which was stunningly inappropriate for Science Magazine. I first found out about this when I saw a Tweet from a colleague and friend Rebecca Calisi Rodriguez.
And when I started to dig into the story I was nauseated.

 To sum up - the article was by a student who was apparently trying to express some thoughts about #SciComm activities by others that she did not like. And in the piece she named and mocked the activities of another PhD student at her own institution who does SciComm in ways she does not feel comfortable with. Fortunately, when I started looking at social media responses to this, they were overwhelmingly in support of this targeted student - Samantha Yammine who does really quite phenomenal SciComm work. (See for example her Twitter feed and her Instagram feed.

 I am really thrilled and proud of the community that came out in support of her.

There have also been a few news stories related to or directly about the topic which are worth reading.
Also some of the Tweet streams about this are really worth reading. For example, this one from @christineliuart is a must read:

I ended up compiling some of the Tweets about this topic in a Twitter Moment which I share below. 

Hopefully, the student who wrote the article will rethink many aspects of it and hopefully she does not suffer major repercussions from writing this misguided piece.  And though she originally seemed to be defending the article she eventually at least posted an apology to Sam.

 However, there is one part of the story that I believe is in need of a major, detailed examination.  And that is the role of Science Magazine in all of this.  I went on a bit of a rant about this on Twitter when I and other people found that Science's response to the controversy was insufficient.  I embed my posts about that below.

So I started to dig around into what I could do and then I got an email from the Editor in Chief of Science. Apparently, after publishing an article that directly critiqued a PhD student in public in his own magazine he was uncomfortable with responding in social media.  I am not sure whether Jeremey Berg thinks these emails should remain private but I do not think that.  So I am posting my exchange here.

Hi Jonathan: I would like to understand better your views on the Working Life column but I do not think Twitter is the best forum for this. The full Editor’s note is shown below:

Editor's note, 17 March, 12:45 p.m.: In setting the context in this opinion piece, an individual (Science Sam) was identified and many have read the article as a personal attack. This was not the intent of the author or the editors, and we apologize. We are examining our editorial process for these pieces moving forward.

This is an honest assessment of what happened. The author’s concerns about what she perceived as an expectation for her, as a woman, to participate in a certain type of science communication was driven by promotion of this on her campus.

In retrospect, the piece should have been edited so that the person was not identified, but it was not intended to be an attack and was not read this way by several editors and many other readers.

What do you think will be accomplished from “a more thorough investigation”?

I welcome your thoughts.

Best, Jeremy

Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D.

Editor-in-Chief, Science family of journals
So I wrote back immediately

Thanks for the email. 
A few comments

1. The author said on Twitter she worked extensively with an editor to craft her piece. I think it is important to know if it was ever discussed that she identified a specific person for her critique and whether they considered that to be a good or a bad thing. For that matter, how was this introduced to the piece - did it come from the author or from the editor?

2. Does Science Magazine have any policy of any kind regarding personal attacks / critiques like this? If yes, were they ever considered in this case? If no, why not?

3. During the editing process, was there ever a discussion of how to get more attention to the piece? I can only assume yes so in that context what was discussed? Did the mocking, demeaning wording come from the editor or from the author and why was it not removed?
  • For example consider "Publicly documenting the cute outfit I wear and the sweet smile I brandish." Given that the article publicly identifies the target of this piece, it is reasonable to assume this is targeting Sam. This is just not OK.
  • And furthermore, who chose to highlight that one line in the piece. Yes, it is catchy. But it is a personal attack against a female graduate student. And it is astonishing that it was published.
4. Why was it deemed reasonable for such a piece to repeatedly disparage outreach efforts of others? Is this a useful thing to publish in this space?

Some examples
  • ".. I am annoyed that the majority of the posts seem to celebrate a very narrow representation of femininity,"
  • "demonstrate that they're interested in clothes and makeup, that they're physically active, and that they are attractive romantic partners"
  • " Time spent on Instagram is time away from research"
  • "Let's not celebrate that."
I believe there is no way to interpret this other than an attempt to shame people like Sam. This basically is saying "you cannot do this - you are to be shamed for focusing on such things".

And that is disgraceful.

5. Are you and Science going to publicly apologize to Sam?

6. Why does this piece not suggest alternative uses of Intagram? Why is it just attacking what other people do?

And much more. I think this article, being published in Science, with the editing help of Science, is in need of a thorough investigation to find out why it ended up the way it did. Why was there a personal attack left in? Why was it deemed OK to mock other people? Why could it not instead have focused on positive suggestions for how to do outreach in other ways that maybe Meghan was OK with? And so on.

I encourage you to have a more public, open discussion of how this happened and how you might try to prevent it from happening again.

And eventually I got a response back from Jeremy
Hi Jonathan: Thanks for your response.

The story unfolded as described in the piece. The author was introduced to Science Sam’s Instagram efforts at a career workshop, started looking into this and other Instagram accounts, found herself uncomfortable with the content and her perceived expectation that she follow suit, and did some self-reflection to conclude that she resented the implications regarding the underlying issues related to women in science. Based on this, the author wrote her essay and submitted it to Science Careers. Her experience with Science Sam’s Instagram account was always a central part of the essay. The editing process involved working with her on the writing to help make her message clearer. There was no attempt to get more attention to the piece or to make it more inflammatory.

I think the perspective that some young female scientists feel pressured to participate in science communication efforts, particularly those of a specific type, is an interesting one. I do not read this as an attempt to disparage the efforts of others but rather to explore the basis for the author’s reactions to these efforts.

We have both publicly and privately apologized to Samantha.

As I said in my earlier email, in retrospect, we should have explored ways to avoid naming an individual specifically in the essay, both to avoid the appearance of an attack and the loss of the message of the essay over this issue. As we indicated in the Editor’s note, we are examining our processes related to these pieces.

Best, Jeremy

Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D.

Editor-in-Chief, Science family of journals
It did not, well, make me feel like Science was going to be doing anything. And many parts of the response I find troubling.  But I could not deal with all of that.  I focused on what they planned to do in terms of looking into what happened and wrote back.
I have many questions and comments and concerns about your response here but want to focus on one issue. 
What do you mean by "we are examining our processes related to these pieces." Can you say more about your plans in this regard? 
And I got back an even more disappointing response
Hi Jonathan: At this point, there is not much more to say. The people involved in the process will meet and discuss whether we need to do anything differently to avoid potential problems in the future.

Best, Jeremy

Jeremy M. Berg, Ph.D.

Editor-in-Chief, Science family of journals
So - basically, it looks like Science Magazine will do nothing. They published an inappropriate article targeting a single PhD student and that article was also loaded with a variety of sexist misguided attacks on specific types of science communication.  And they won't discuss this on Twitter because it is not the right place to discuss it.  And then by email they basically state "We will privately look into it and not tell anyone."

That is just not enough.  I plan to pursue this further via AAAS and see if a formal, perhaps outside review can take place.

More on gene editing rules, CRISPR in humans and dogs, bioethics & breakthroughs

THE HUMAN GENE EDITING SUMMIT, CONT’D Citizens seeking to understand what was decided at last week’s Human Gene Editing Summit might be understandably confused by the contradictions in these headlines: Scientific community approves human gene

Storify of Discussions About Shameless Behavior by #AAAS Relating to #Ebola Papers

Are you a Twitter Science Superstar?

by Brainleaf Communications

In the beginning, there was Neil Hall’s tone deaf “Kardashian Index”. Then there was Science Magazine’s list of 50 Twitter science superstars. Combined they painted a pretty clear picture that being active on social media was only considered a desirable characteristic in a thin slice of the population – you know, white dudes.

Hall did so by mocking young scientists who are active and effective on social media. Science Magazine did so by featuring very few women or people of color in their list.

PZ Myers, who did make Science Magazine’s list, takes them, particularly the editors, to task:

Isn’t it weird how invisible people suddenly become apparent if you just look for them?

In doing so, PZ reminded me of a Blues Brothers themed piece I wrote a few years ago for Nature’s Soapbox Science about finding audiences where they are on social media. Rather than fighting over the niche audience of science fans, we need to be convincing people to be science fans – much like Jake and Elwood convinced people to like the Blues.

The methodology used by Science Magazine involved looking at the accounts being followed by obvious science superstars, like Neil deGrasse Tyson. A problem with this method is that Tyson, for example, followed less than 50 accounts at the time, and those accounts were not particularly diverse.What the methodology of the list demonstrated above all else is that our most famous science advocates need to follow a more diverse set of people.

Not only are such lists biased against women and minorities, they are biased against anyone who is not inheriting a following from other media, such as television, books, or magazines.

The phenomena are related.

Having been excluded from traditional methods of building an audience, women and minorities have taken to newer media and social media. While their audiences may not be as large, those audiences are hard earned. They are based on the quality of content produced. They are engaged – and they are fiercely loyal, as Science Magazine has discovered.

In the spirit of lemonade, one upshot of this mess is that it has brought attention to several excellent lists of female and minority advocates for science*:

Laura Keeney – “Women Tweet Science Too”

Paige Brown Jurreau – “Awesome Women Scientist Tweeters”

Erika Check Hayden – “Women Scientists” on Twitter

Victoria Herridge – “Women in Science” on Twitter

PZ Myers – “Women and Science on YouTube”

Katie Mack – “Women in Astro/Phys/etc”

Stephani Page – “BLACKandSTEM”

Joanne Manaster – “10 Women Scientists You Should Follow on Twitter”

*This list cannot possible be exhaustive. Feel free to add ones I’ve missed in the comments.

Filed under: Follies of the Human Condition Tagged: blues brothers, Erika Check Hayden, Feminism, Joanne Manaster, Kathryn Clancy, Katie Mack, Laura Keeney, nature, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Paige Brown Jurreau, PZ Myers, race, science magazine, soapbox science, social media, Stephani Page, Twitter, Victoria Herridge, women, women in science

The Representative Disapproves

Representative Jackie Speier (CA, 14th District) has taken Science Magazine to task (PDF of full letter here) for their controversial cover and controversial response to criticism of that cover.

The July ll issue of Science Magazine featured a lurid cover photograph of transgender women in tight dresses and high heels with their heads cropped out of the frame.

She rightfully questions not only the choice, which dehumanizes transgender individuals and works against making science a welcoming environment for diverse individuals, but the perspectives of the senior editorial staff of Science Magazine, who failed to exercise reasonable judgment on this cover choice.

I appreciate the apology from Science ’s editor-in-chíef, but question how such a sexist, racist, and transphobic cover was selected in the first place.

The fact that the poobahs at Science Magazine seemed surprised by the response implies quite a few unpleasant things about the decision-making process. She also extends responsibility to Science Magazine‘s parent organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Importantly, Representative Speier has not simply registered a complaint. She has demanded a substantive response, which I suspect Science Magazine will be more likely to act on than any letters I send.

As one of the nation’s preeminent science organizations, I expect you will take action to eradicate harassment and inequality in the scientific community. Please reply with the specific steps you will take to become part of the solution, instead of a contributor to the problem.

It also has footnotes.

Filed under: Follies of the Human Condition Tagged: house of representatives, Jackie Speier, Linkonomicon, science, science magazine, transgender

Please make it stop – overselling the microbiome award for rugby, exercise, microbiome stories

Well, I think today's lesson is, many people, including many scientists and science reporters, just do not get that there is a difference between correlation and causation.  I know - this is like beating a dead horse since many write about this issue.  But it just needs to be called out every time until it stops.  And today's fun comes from stories and the original research articles about how exercise supposedly alters the gut microbiome.

I was pointed to this just a few minutes ago on Twitter:

In this Tweet Bernat Olle points to a "news" story in Medpage Today: Exercise Boosts Gut Microbiome Diversity by Kristina Fiore.   Well, so of course I started digging around.  And, not surprisingly, the study that this is based on shows absolutely no causal connection between exercise and the gut microbiome.  The study is in the journal "Gut": Exercise and associated dietary extremes impact on gut microbial diversity.  And here is what they did:
  • They selected subjects - 40 "elite" rugby players.
  • They identified healthy male "controls" with similar age and size and from similar place. 
  • Then they collected faecal and blood samples from participants and did surveys about their nutrition and clinical data.
  • Among many measurements, they did 16S sequencing from the fecal samples
  • Then they did some bioinformatics and found differences between the rugby players and the controls in many features including microbiomes.
And amazingly, from this they report, in their abstract
The results provide evidence for a beneficial impact of exercise on gut microbiota diversity but also indicate that the relationship is complex and is related to accompanying dietary extremes.

The key part of this to me is 
The results provide evidence for a beneficial impact of exercise on gut microbiota diversity
For which they have no support.  They do not in any way show that exercise has ANY affect on the microbiota.  They show it is correlated to the microbiota.

And sadly there is a commentary on the article in the same issue of Gut that makes the same mistake.  Georgina Hold in The gut microbiota, dietary extremes and exercise writes:
The article is the first report that exercise increases gut microbiota richness/diversity and highlights that exercise is another important factor in the complex relationship among the host, host immunity and the microbiota.

No.  They did not show exercise increased gut microbiota diversity.  How can the difference between correlation and causation be missed in these articles?  Are these not even reviewed?  Sure - this is consistent with exercise affecting microbiomes but it is also consistent with rugby players having different diets and other behaviors.  There is a big difference between showing cause and effect and showing correlation.  For not distinguishing between correlation and causation regarding the rugby player microbiomes I am giving all involved here an "Overselling the Microbiome Award".

Here is a microbiome theory I will leave you with.  I hypothesize that these papers, and all the other ones that oversell the microbiome, themselves cause major changes in the microbiome of many people.  Evidence for this?  Well, none yet.  But I have a correlation.  The correlation is, after reading these papers,  I feel sick to my stomach.  That must be proof right?

UPDATE 6/11/14

Author of the Medscape Medpage today article Kristina Fiore says she will update the article to more accurately reflect the science. See some of the thread below

UPDATE 2: 6/11/14.

The press release from Gut associated with this paper contains many inaccurate statements.

Examples include:
  • Title: Exercise boosts diversity of gut bacteria
  • Text: Exercise boosts the diversity of the bacteria found in the gut, indicates the first study of its kind published online in the journal Gut.
Somewhat surprised that such mistakes would come from the journal itself.

UPDATE 3: 6/12/14.

Kritina Fiore has fixed the Medpage article.  Nice.

UPDATE 4: 6/12/14.

Science Magazine gets the causation vs. correlation issue wrong in their little news piece about this.  Yuck.

UPDATE 5: 6/12.

Alexandra Sifferlin has a good article about this at Time


More accurate coverage by Claire O'Connell in the Irish Times Generally a good article here: Rugby players show good guts


Popular Science messes it up too


Keeping track of some of the Tweets about this on Storfy.

UPDATE 9 6/13/14.

NPR News Falls for the Hype

UPDATE 10: 6/13/14.

Just found another inaccurate claim in the original paper

UPDATE 11: 6/13/14

Oh FFS. Now I have found some articles reporting not only that exercise affects gut microbial diversity but that this is why exercise reduces obesity. See Exercise lowers obesity risk by stimulating diverse gut bacteria in the NVO News, for example.

Quote from the story:
A latest research suggests that exercise actually lowers obesity risk by stimulating diverse gut bacteria

UPDATE 12: 6/13/14

Fox News did better with the science (at least in their headline) than many other News Agencies (and much better than NPR).  They report "Exercise may lead to healthier gut bacteria".

Just that word "May" makes me happy.  I know.  Low bar.  But I will take what I can get.

UPDATE 13: 6/13/14

Genome Web also is reporting on the story and on the "overselling" that was done.

UPDATE 13: 6/18/14

And now the New York Times joins the fray: Exercise and the ‘Good’ Bugs in Our Gut where Gretchen Reynolds writes:
The findings suggest that, in addition to its other health benefits, frequent exercise may influence our weight and overall health by altering the kinds of organisms that live inside of us.
No - the findings do not suggest that.  The findings are consistent with that theory but they are consistent with many many many other theories.  FFS this is maddening.  And the article ends with a quote from one of the authors:
But even in advance of those findings, he said, it seems likely that any amount of exercise should make your gut more welcoming to the bacteria that you want residing there.
I note - I found out about this article via Twitter