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After Facing Criticism, a Top Scientific Journal Says: No More 'But Look What Good He's Done'

The letters-to-the-editor section of Science, one of the world's top scientific journals, is taking a new stance on what arguments it will accept about those accused of sexual harassment.
The Francisco J. Ayala Science Library, which has since been renamed the Science Library.

The Francisco J. Ayala Science Library, which has since been renamed the Science Library.

After getting pushback for a letter it published in support of a biologist found guilty by his university of harassing colleagues, Science magazine has changed its tune. Although it wants to continue to air "a wide range of perspectives" and to publish letters from readers that "reflect conversations taking place in the scientific community," the top journal is drawing some new lines. As editor-in-chief Jeremy Berg writes:

In the future, we will not publish Letters in which authors argue that an individual accused or found guilty of harassment is likely innocent because others have interacted with that person without incident; this argument is logically flawed. In addition, although some information about a person's scientific achievements is at times necessary to establish context, we will not publish Letters in which authors argue that professional achievements have any bearing at all on the likelihood that the individual engaged in harassment.

Observers of media reporting on sexual harassment and assault praised the move as helpful to the public understanding of harassment. "It is a commitment not to give editorial space to the misconception that a person's accomplishments or professional merit could, in some way, discount their capacity to inflict harassment or abuse," says Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "We know there is no correlation, that individuals of all walks of life" may harass others, she adds.

Science isn't exactly reading for the general public. It's a journal, aimed at professional scientists, that publishes studies, science news, and editorials. But it is one of science's most prestigious publications and scientists of all stripes have followed its workplace harassment reporting closely.

That's how Berg came to rethink his letters-to-the-editor policies in the first place. Science had reported on the University of California–Irvine's investigation of, and penalties meted out against, a former faculty member, biologist Francisco Ayala, who was accused of harassing women in his department. In response, 63 scientists wrote Science a letter that talked about Ayala's accomplishments in research and outreach, and argued that he "is an honorable person, who throughout his career has treated his friends, co-workers, and students in a respectful, egalitarian way." Science published it. Then came the backlash:

That last tweet is from one of the UC–Irvine faculty members who formally complained about Ayala's behavior and who asked to be identified in Science's reporting on the case.

There are ways to criticize harassment investigations that don't rely on harmful myths, Palumbo says. She pointed to another letter to the editor that Science published, which argued UC–Irvine's investigation was too secretive and that the school's penalties for Ayala were more severe than the behavior he was accused of merited. "I don't agree with all of the assertions," Palumbo says, "but I can see that it adds to the public conversation in a way that is about dialogue and not about shaming those who have reported."

The look what good they've done argument, on the other hand, is "bad logic" and too common, says Robin Leeds, who specializes in crisis communication and founded a political consulting firm, Winning Strategies LLC. "It's really a distraction strategy," she says, "that essentially demonstrates non-belief in the victim."