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Friday, March 11, 2016

Why did @sciencemagazine terminate me after 25 years of service?

Yesterday March 10 at about noon East Coast USA time, I received a telephone call from Science's news editor, Tim Appenzeller. Tim was calling to tell me that after 25 years with the magazine, he was giving me 30 days notice that my Contributing Correspondent contract would be terminated. He spoke briefly of a "breakdown of trust" between me and Science's editors and indicated that the quarter-century long relationship was no longer working. In a followup email, Tim referred to the "wonderful work" I had done for Science over the years, and wrote that my recent investigative piece on the sexual misconduct allegations concerning Brian Richmond of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) had been "a high point." Last month, shortly before the piece was published, he called this three-month long investigation "an extraordinary piece of reporting."

So why am I now being terminated? This sudden action is all the more surprising because just earlier this week Tim had expressed interest in a possible story idea I had come across unexpectedly, and also this week I had made a telephone appointment with our biomedical news editor to discuss a followup feature to another high-profile story I had done recently entitled "Talking Back to Madness."

What follows is, of course, my own interpretation of events, and I am going to try to keep it short for now even though it's somewhat of a long story. For Science's view of things, I can only refer you to Tim himself, or the magazine's Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt. It will be interesting to see what kind of public explanation they might give, if any.

There is a proximate cause for my termination: A tense, sometimes bruising behind-the-scenes conflict with my editors over the Brian Richmond story that eventually forced me to threaten to pull it from Science and publish it elsewhere, as my contract allows if agreement on a text cannot be reached. My take on this conflict is that Science was at least as concerned with avoiding a lawsuit as it was with telling the truth about what its reporter was finding. The piece was way outside the magazine's comfort zone, and yet it did not want to lose a story that would bring it considerable credit and attention. I am proud of the story that was published, but a great deal was left out. More on that later.

Then there is a more long-range, historical reason for what Tim referred to as a breakdown in trust. That goes back to October 2014, when I took a public leave of absence to protest the firing of four women at Science, in the art and production departments. At least two of these colleagues have had their careers destroyed by this action, which was carried out by two male senior managers and shocked the conscience of the entire staff at Science and its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS.) My public action, which admittedly was controversial among my colleagues on the news staff, raised the issue of whether a nonprofit membership organization, with a supposedly democratically elected board, should be acting like a Wall Street hedge fund. At the very least, the question of the need for transparency in such an organization became a subject of debate in the scientific community, to the discomfort of AAAS's highly paid managers, who were used to operating behind closed doors (and who, unfortunately, still are for the most part.)

But given the suddenness of Tim's action, and his interest in my story ideas just a couple of days earlier, there must have been an immediate trigger for it. I can only speculate on that, and will do so at the end of this post.

Because I do not want to treat my colleagues as shabbily as they are now treating me (one editor is already spreading disinformation among the news staff about why I am leaving), and because the Brian Richmond story had undergone a careful legal review, I will need to be somewhat circumspect about what I say here. But it is important to note that Science did not jump on the story when we first found out about the allegations concerning Richmond last August. There was discussion about whether we should focus on this one person, about whether Richmond and his alleged actions were important enough to write a story about, and related issues. I don't think my editors will contest the fact that I pushed the hardest for us to do a story; but even after the Geoff Marcy sexual harassment case broke at Berkeley, and the astronomer was forced to resign, there was still a great deal of ambivalence about whether the Richmond case was newsworthy. Fortunately, however, I was in New York teaching at NYU, and so in a good position to begin probing the allegations. Without going into details, a difference of opinion emerged almost immediately between my editor on the story and myself; my editor wanted me to give highest priority to obtaining documentation that would cover Science in case of a lawsuit, and I wanted to talk to as many sources as possible about the allegations (I was also, rightly, doubtful that we would get the key document my editors sought, as it was covered by the AMNH's attorney-client privilege and no one had a motivation to give it to us.)

Fortunately for the story, I ignored much of the instruction I was given by my editor and pursued the investigation according to my experience and instincts as a reporter. The result is what you can read in Science. But towards the end, it became clear that my editors were in no hurry to publish the story, even though it was time-sensitive in a number of ways and basic fairness to both Richmond and the alleged victim of the sexual misconduct dictated that we not dither with it; and for various reasons I became concerned that my editors wanted to tone down the story and cut key information for fear of a lawsuit (in fact, some key details were lost, and I may discuss that in a follow up blog post.) I insisted that my editors set a certain date for publication, and threatened to pull the story if they did not agree and if they did not publish a version that I could live with. They finally acquiesced to these demands, and we compromised on an online publication date of February 9 and print publication on February 12. I regretted very much that this battle became necessary.

Some commentators have pointed out in the past, and reminded social media followers yesterday, that Science and the AAAS have had a poor track record on sexual harassment issues. The Brian Richmond story was a chance for the magazine to redeem itself, and indeed it was already on the way to doing so with fine stories by my colleague Jeff Mervis, who broke the Christian Ott Caltech story. My own perception is that the magazine was caught between its desire to take credit for the Richmond story and its fear of a lawsuit. In prior comments to people about this, and on discussion lists, I have tried to give my editors credit for doing the right thing and publishing a hard-hitting story despite their fears; but in the end they have decided to shoot the messenger.

I've already talked above about the culture at AAAS that allowed four colleagues to be fired precipitously in 2014, and will not elaborate on that here--except to say that just as I was beginning the Brian Richmond investigation, one of my editors asked me to delete a key blog post about that episode in which I criticized our Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt for parroting the party line put out by former AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. I declined to engage in this sanitizing of the historical record, not least because I consider that episode to be one of the proudest moments of my life. It's not often that one gets to put one's career on the line for something one believes in, and I have no regrets.

And the key issue here is not me nor my termination by Science, but whether researchers, students, reporters and other employees of an organization like the AAAS can speak out without fear of being fired. I said I thought there might be an immediate trigger for why I was suddenly terminated. This is total speculation, but a couple of weeks ago I learned that Science's publisher, Kent Anderson, who was hired to great fanfare in August 2014, had quietly left the magazine late last year. There was no announcement to staff, no press release, nothing. And when I made inquiries, no one knew, although some suspected that there had been a disagreement or fallout of some sort among upper management at AAAS (Anderson did not respond to my direct questions to him about this.) I did not hesitate to ask some senior people at AAAS about this, as is my right as a reporter and a scientific citizen.

So the publisher of Science leaves and no one is told about it, and no one knows why? Is that the kind of behind-the-scenes lack of transparency that an organization like the AAAS should be operating under? AAAS members need to ask some hard questions about the way that their organization and its flagship publication are being run. Perhaps I asked one question too many.

Additional thoughts: Some readers might think that my speculations about why I was terminated this week in particular are, well, pretty speculative, and I suppose they are. But consider this: On Monday of this week our news editor Tim Appenzeller expressed interest in a story idea I told him about and mentioned two other editors he thought might be interested in it too; on Tuesday he approved $200 in expenses for me to take some of the sources for the Brian Richmond story out to lunch next month; on Wednesday another editor made an appointment to discuss yet another story idea next week; on Thursday I was fired. What happened between Monday and Thursday? Did someone above Tim make the decision to terminate me and Tim was the messenger? Questions that need answers, and not just for my sake.

Update 12 March: Reporter Cynthia McKelvey at The Daily Dot posted an excellent and very accurate story today, well worth reading for additional insights, information, and nuances.

32 comments:

Lisa Wynn said...

It's the journal's great loss, and very disappointing. I love your writing and hope to see you writing for better journals in the future. This shakes my confidence in Science Magazine. And I hope we can look forward to you breaking the story on Kent Anderson's departure sometimes soon!

Michael Balter said...

Thanks Lisa, much appreciated. I think I am going to leave the Kent Anderson story to another reporter :-)

Joseba said...

Sorry to hear that, these last years you have written some of the best pieces about paleoanthropology. Good luck!

Michael Balter said...

That's very kind, Joseba, thanks for your support! I will not disappear, promise.

Perry J. Greenbaum said...

Hi Michael,

I just came across this story on my Twitter feed (AAAS Statement). As a freelance writer since 1996, I am appalled by this story; but given the state of publishing and journalism the last 10 years, I am not surprised.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks Perry, your comment appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for standing on the side of truth and putting a career on the line to break this story. The powers that be can only turn a blind eye for so long, journalists such as yourself give voices to those afraid to speak. With freedom of speech may the truth reign.

Anonymous said...

First, thank you for being an ally for women in science. Those of us in science (especially those of us who are women) know that these cases are not isolated. Further, despite the hashtag of, "Not All Men" do this or are like this. It is the case the ONE SINGLE, powerful man can RUIN the careers and lives of many, many women that the single predatory man contacts. Thus, it is important to take him down. The other men should realize that there is no positive outcome for the victim to come forward, and will likely result in her career being lost in the field. We women want to protect ourselves. We need to protect ourselves with information. We need an anonymous location where we can post the names and incidents we have witnessed and been victims of, so that we can out the men. This is far further into the legally problematic area than your report, which was filled with double-checked facts. We do not want this to take down these men, since that appears difficult socially and legally. We do want to warn and protect ourselves and each other. What can be done? Can we make a predator black-list?

Michael Balter said...

Thanks to both "Anonymous" posters for your thoughts and support.

Keith Cowing said...

I just tweeted a link to your post on @NASAWatch @SpaceRef @HubbleScience @Astrobiology @SpaceWeather - ~130,000 followers.

Michael Balter said...

thanks!

Ana said...

Thanks for writting that article. It has been a big, big step in the right direction. Scientists read it and checked themselves. It raised awareness on what goes on and shouldn't, and I strongly feel that promoted a feeling of potential exposition for the harassers to behave. And for Academia to be more vigilant and less tolerant. It was a turning point paper for sexism in Academia.

But now the opposite message is being sent. AAAS should not permit this. They can't afford to shack you just now, because they are sending the message that women must be defenseless, totally vulnerable. If AAAS supports equality in Academia they should give you a permanent assignment to look into unspoken gender issues.

You have already made History. Thanks Michael, for being on our side.
Ana Pinto (Spain)

Linda Felaco said...

If AAAS were truly serious about "empowering women in STEM fields," they would recognize that sexual harassment is probably the number one impediment to women's career advancement and that it won't be stopped by shielding the harassers from public scrutiny. By their actions, they show that their only interest is in maintaining the status quo. Shame on them.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks for these comments, they are much appreciated.

The reason AAAS/Science fired me is very simple: They see me as a troublemaker, and I probably am--although I try only to make trouble when it is really necessary. In the two main cases involved here, the firing of four colleagues in fall 2014 and the casual attitude towards timely publication of a major sexual misconduct case, trouble needed to be made.

As for the attack on me by an Anonymous commenter, which I have deleted: If you have the courage to use your name, I will not delete it again. But cowards have no place on this blog.

Salve Amicus said...

This is really pathetic. Soldier on Michael, they cannot silence you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for everything you have done to right so many wrongs, Michael. Women need to be empowered with information and the confidence to be themselves, and should remember to focus on working with men as allies and brothers. In my experience, communication, listening, and collegiality promote everyone's best interests and thus the best science. How could the situation turn around to be positive and pro-active for the young women scientists?

Ned Rubin said...

Michael--

Thanks you so much for all of your good work these past decades. I do hope you will continue your excellent reporting with an ethical publication.

I think It is true that all institutions eventually muddle to mediocrity; it is up to the "troublemakers" to prod the institutional beast--troublemakers like Einstein at the Patent Office, and Feynman at Los Alamos, and Rosalind Franklin at King's College.

All the best in your new endeavors!

Michael Balter said...

Many thanks to those who commented today for your kind words and support. It's been pretty overwhelming to see just how strong the feelings are out there and how many people are engaged and concerned with these issues. That should give all of us hope for a brighter future.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your great reporting. Is Science/AAAS following the (misguided) lead of universities and engaging in institutional betrayal? As an AAAS fellow and avid Science magazine reader, I was proud of your article and now I certainly feel betrayed by your being fired.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institutional_betrayal
http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/institutionalbetrayal/




Scott Maxwell said...

Thank you for your integrity -- not only for standing up for women in science, but of course for that too. Principled people are rare in this world. It's a shame there aren't more of them on the AAAS board, but I'm glad you're one all the same.

I'll be looking forward to reading your future writing.

Michael Balter said...

Many thanks Scott and other commenters for your support and kind words. As you know this goes far beyond my situation and we have not seen the last of it. The coming week should be critical.

Darren Fa said...

I am deeply shocked by your news. It is definitely Science's loss. I look forward to continue reading your excellent work in other journals in the future. All best, Darren

Michael Balter said...

Thanks very much, Darren, I certainly will be resurfacing in other venues and outlets! In fact I already have a story in this month's Audubon and another coming up in the May issue of Scientific American. Here is the link to the Audubon story:

https://www.audubon.org/magazine/march-april-2016/meet-bird-brainiacs-eurasian-jay

Giuseppe Longo said...

I have been following you over the years and I always admired your clarity of vision and you in-depth analysis. It is a loss for the journal, not for you. Please keep us informed if anything you emerges and let us know about your future writings.
With all my simpathy. Giuseppe Longo. Full professor of Astrophysics.

Michael Balter said...

Thanks so much, Giuseppe, and I can promise that I will still be around and writing. This month, for example, I have a profile of bird cognition expert Nicky Clayton in Audubon magazine and a story on language origins coming up in the May issue of Scientific American. Here is the link to the Audubon story:

https://www.audubon.org/magazine/march-april-2016/meet-bird-brainiacs-eurasian-jay

So while I am sad not to be working for Science anymore I will be pursuing other projects.

all best wishes, Michael

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear. I admit I am always surprised by the variability in responses to sexual misconduct by academics. Have you ever thought of investigating the professor Horner at Montana State University perhaps using the Freedom of Information Act? He has married two of his students, one of which was only 19 at the time. There are numerous rumors of the university making special exceptions for him, of his inappropriate behavior around young women on his excavations, and even of sharing a tent with a young girl under the legal age. Where there is smoke there is fire and your courage could help many young women before the professor retires and such emails and communication are potentially lost.

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Thomas Munro said...

You may be interested to know that Kent Anderson has given some details, implying (but not explicitly stating) that he resigned:

"... I had to commute between Boston and DC every week for more than a year. It was harder than I imagined it would be. My decision had nothing to do with Science Advances. In fact, I was able to get two other journals approved by the Board (Science Robotics and Science Immunology) before I left. AAAS is an important organization. It’s just in the wrong city for me."

http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2016/04/05/the-newish-kids-on-the-block-touring-the-megajournals/#comment-159394

Michael Balter said...

Thanks Thomas. But still very odd, is it not, that no explanation was given to the staff at Science/AAAS, nor any public statement issued when he left? He was the PUBLISHER after all.

Linda Felaco said...

Why, in the 21st century, is anyone's physical presence required at a self-proclaimed "digital first" journal like Science?

Thomas Munro said...

Hi Michael, I certainly agree it's odd. The lack of a press release presumably isn't unusual for a recent hire. But not telling the staff, and especially refusing to answer your question himself, is not what I'd expect after an amicable retirement over commuting time. I suspect management realized that hiring a prominent opponent of open access and megajournals to launch an OA megajournal made them look silly.

Michael Balter said...

Thomas, there are all sorts of machinations at the top levels of the AAAS that few ever find out about. It's run like a private corporation, Koch brothers style. An organization like the AAAS should be an open book to its members and the scientific community, but it's just the opposite.