Monday, October 20, 2014

Why is Science's Editor-in-Chief dissing her own news staff? [UPDATED]

As regular readers of this blog know (and many thousands of others), on October 6 I began a three month leave of absence from my position as Contributing Correspondent for Science, in protest of the abrupt and callous termination of four women from our art and production departments. I was also protesting the failure of the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which publishes Science, and its Editor-in-Chief to make any formal response to concerns raised by the overwhelming majority of our news staff in a communication to them on September 26.

A number of people have asked me if anything has happened since then. The answer is, yes, a lot, which I will report at some length here.

Before I do, however, I want to address the question of whether these matters should be made public in the first place. The AAAS CEO and Science's Executive Publisher, Alan Leshner, has made it clear to colleagues that he is very angry about my October 6 blog, and there are some colleagues (now a minority given subsequent events) who feel that these issues should have been kept in-house. However, as I have argued, the AAAS is a nonprofit, membership organization, with a Board that is democratically elected; it is also the largest general scientific body in the world. Thus it should be subject to the same scrutiny, including from the scientific community and the public at large, as any other large organization of its type. This seems a basic principle. And in my view, such public scrutiny is now necessary to avoid in the future the kinds of abuses of long-time employees that I described in my October 6 post, and which the news staff expressed its alarm about in its September 26 communication.

When Leshner first received this communication, he let it be known that he would be making no response to it other than a note he had sent earlier about the "transformation" AAAS is going through to a "digital first" strategy (see my Oct 6 post for more details on this.) We received no response from Science's Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt, which was a surprise to some; however we surmised that she had probably not been responsible for the terminations, which were primarily the work of our Chief Digital Media Officer, Rob Covey.

Then my blog post hit, which was viewed by about 3000 people the first day, 1300 the second day, and several hundred each day for about a week after that. Either that evening or first thing the next morning, I am not clear on which, Leshner relented and said that he would meet with anyone who wanted to in his office on the following Thursday, October 9. That meeting did take place in DC, where AAAS has its headquarters. I was not present, but from accounts of those who were there (more than 40 people from Science's news and editorial staffs attended), it is clear that many colleagues were quite outspoken in raising their concerns about how the terminations were handled. There were mixed reviews about how much Leshner took these concerns on board, however, and many left the meeting feeling that his responses were unsatisfactory.

Clearly we are not going to get the jobs of the four fired women back. However, I would like to think that the AAAS, its senior management, and its Human Resources department will think twice (or three times) about how such things are handled in the future.

I would like to think that, but I am not sure, based on other developments. The only public response to events came from the AAAS director of public programs, Ginger Pinholster, who often handles public relations for the organization when big issues are at stake. I have known Ginger for many years and always considered her a consummate professional, a person of honesty and integrity. However, her response, which appeared in an October 7 report on the situation by Paul Raeburn of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, was very disappointing. She simply stated that the terminations were carried out the same way they always had been at AAAS, and that they were a necessary part of the digital transformation. A number of AAAS colleagues challenged this assertion to me privately, but that was the only public response at that time.

In the past week, however, at least two members of AAAS have written to Leshner and McNutt, citing my blog post and expressing concerns about it. These two individuals are researchers familiar with me and my reporting for Science, and they assumed that my facts were accurate. Leshner apparently made no response to them, but McNutt did so. And what she said was appalling: She told them that most of my facts were wrong, and that "some" of the terminated colleagues were unhappy and/or embarrassed that their situations had been made public (this despite my disguising the identity of those colleagues who would have been particularly vulnerable.)

This of course got back to me, and I wrote Marcia challenging her assertions. I pointed out that the facts in my blog post were virtually the same as those in the September 26 communication from nearly all of Science's reporters and news editors, and that I and the rest of the news staff had evidence that the terminated colleagues were in fact not at all angry about my blog post--which, after all, had brought about the meeting with Leshner, as is nearly universally understood (as I have said to colleagues, the meeting came about as the result of the one-two punch of the September 26 communication and my public action; neither alone could have done the job.)

To make things even more bizarre, Marcia wrote me back and asked what September 26 communication I was talking about, claiming she had no knowledge of it. We are not sure what that means, but it seems quite possible that she never got it or never read it. So I resent it to her, and got this response on October 16:

Michael -

I already met with the editorial staff. Tim and Alan met with the News staff. I am not sure what more can be done. Some members of the News staff have come to see me personally and I have met with each of them.

There are many items in this letter that are incorrect. Good journalists usually verify their facts from several sources, and unfortunately with private personnel matters, you are only going on rumors and supposition. I'd like to end this conversation because I honestly don't find it productive. 


[Tim refers to Tim Appenzeller, Science's news editor]
[my repeated questions to Marcia about whether she had seen the communication before I resent it to her have gone unanswered.]

In other words, despite the careful reporting that the news staff did before it sent its September 26 communication, which was of course based on multiple sources, our own Editor-in-Chief is saying in effect that we are bad journalists who don't verify their facts.

I want to end this by saying that I don't think this sad situation can be blamed entirely on Marcia, not by a long shot. She has repeatedly asserted in other contexts that she had nothing to do with the terminations, and was not in the chain of command that made those decisions. As far as we know she is right; they were carried out primarily by Rob Covey, with Leshner's apparent full approval. So why is Marcia taking the fall for them? Was she asked to do this by other managers, did she decide to do this on her own?

Meanwhile I have written again to Marcia challenging her to back up her claims that "some" of the terminated colleagues were upset about my public post, which she downgraded to "at least one" in her last response to me ("at least one" would imply that she is only sure of one.) I have offered to apologize to those individuals publicly or privately as they prefer, and to publicly apologize to her for accusing her of making false statements.

I would call upon Marcia to stop fronting for the decisions and actions of senior management, which she had nothing to do with, and to back up her news staff and its concerns, which is the true job of an Editor-in-Chief over the best science news team in the world (no brag that, just fact.)

Watch this space for further developments.


There are some signs that Science's staff is finally being listened to by the people who matter. Reports are that Marcia McNutt met with the news staff this week, a meeting that was apparently productive; and so did Rob Covey, who clarified his plans for the future. Time will tell if the kinds of abrupt terminations that started this campaign will cease, but it seems clear that the efforts of the news and editorial staffs to firmly communicate their feelings might bear some fruit.


Aidan Karley FGS, BSc said...

Oh dear. You've challenged the Smaug of Power on it's bed of auric arrogance. And that bed is now rather aurous (reduced, geddit? I slay myself!)
Man, I'd get my legal cover in place, sharpish, because Smaug is not happy.
As a geologist and a caver (EN_US : spelunker), may I offer them relevant advice : when in a hole, 1 recognise the fact, and 2 STOP DIGGING.

Michael Balter said...

Aidan, thanks for your concern. In the US, unlike the UK, libel against public figures can only be proved if there is actual malice, and the truth is a defense against any and all libel suits. We also have the ACLU for such situations.

JATdS said...

I think Dr. McNutt was extremely courageous to stand up for what she believed in. I think she was also perfectly right to discuss the issue publically, unless a discussion of such issues was explicitly forbidden in her contract with the AAAS. Finally, it is extremely important to not only hold CEOs and corporate leaders of any institute, whether for-profit, or non-profit, accountable for actions that can affect the image of that company or institute. Rather than expressing anger, surely the CEO would see the clear benefit of coming forward to address the issue, in public, with a calm, and reassuring tone? I have no doubt in my mind that this case has bruised the image of the AAAS and Science. In the same way, publisher corporate management should be expected to take to public blogs to address the concerns of the scientific "masses" while EICs also have the responsibility of publically addressing issues, like retractions at Retraction Watch. The age of corporate superiority is clearly coming to a cross-roads, and the need for maximum transparency and accountablity is upon us, and will affect those in positions of power most, as it should be. Then again, there may be aspects of the the story that are not being told, or that are not fully in the public domain.

Anonymous said...

""I think Dr. McNutt was extremely courageous to stand up for what she believed in. I think she was also perfectly right to discuss the issue publically, unless a discussion of such issues was explicitly forbidden in her contract with the AAAS."

Surely you mean Mr. Balter, not Dr. McNutt.

Dr. McNutt's communication to Mr. Balter is intellectually dishonest innuendo, and is not an appropriate way for an editor-in-chief to respond to sincere concerns of a contributing writer. If I were such, I would find it very difficult to continue on after such a dismissive response.

Romilda Gareth said...


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