Friday, April 29, 2016

Brian Richmond steps down as a guest editor of Journal of Human Evolution special issue on Koobi Fora

Earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) held in Atlanta, members of the editorial board of the Journal of Human Evolution met to discuss a long-planned special issue focusing on footprints and fossils found at the hominin site of Koobi Fora in Kenya. Brian Richmond, curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), was supposed to be the lead guest editor for this issue (Richmond has long worked at Koobi Fora and made important discoveries there.) However, in light of allegations of sexual misconduct against Richmond--he is currently under investigation for the third time by the museum for allegedly sexually assaulting a colleague, and for an alleged pattern of sexual harassment over the years--the editorial board initially voted in Atlanta to cancel the special issue rather than let it go forward under Richmond's leadership.

Subsequent to the vote, however, Richmond offered to step down as guest editor to save the special issue. I am now informed by JHE special issues editor Mark Teaford, in a statement copied below, that the issue will go forward under two other guest editors. In an email to me, Richmond declined to comment on the matter.

The anthropology community is actively struggling with the consequences of the allegations against Richmond, who has not been allowed to work on the AMNH premises while the current investigation is going on (it has been dragging on since last December.) At stake are his collaborations with other researchers and about $1.3 million in National Science Foundation grants on which he is still either principal investigator or co-PI.

The statement provided by Mark Teaford:

"At the Journal of Human Evolution (JHE) Editorial Board Meeting held at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) in Atlanta on April 14, one of the topics discussed concerned the JHE Special Issue on analyses of fossils and footprints from the Okote Member at Koobi Fora.  As a result of those discussions, it was initially decided that each of the papers from that volume would be treated as individual submissions rather than as part of a Special Issue.  In light of that decision, and after subsequent discussions with David Braun, René Bobe, and Brian Richmond (the proposed Guest Editors of that Special Issue), the Editors of JHE (Sarah Elton, Mike Plavcan, and Mark Teaford) received a request from Brian Richmond to voluntarily remove his name as a Guest Editor of that issue.  Under that scenario, David Braun and René Bobe would handle most of the guest editorial work, taking exceptional care to provide thorough, productive reviews of each paper.  Whenever they couldn’t oversee the review process (for instance, when they’re co-authors on the same paper), Mark Teaford, the Special Issues Editor of JHE, would handle those duties.  As in all JHE Special Issues, final oversight of the reviews, revisions, and decisions on all papers would rest in the hands of Mark Teaford.

        The Editors of JHE, felt that this option was worth considering.  Thus it was suggested to the Editorial Board this week and approved. As many of the papers were ready for submission earlier this month, the review process for them shall begin as soon as possible and the journal plans to proceed with the publication of the Special Issue with David Braun and René Bobe as Guest Editors."

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Supplemental information on my conflict with editors of @sciencemagazine over Brian Richmond story: Part 2

final summary of my concerns about the sexual misconduct story

Michael Balter Tue, Jan 19, 2016 at 8:08 AM
To: Tim Appenzeller <>, Elizabeth Culotta <>, Marcia McNutt <>
Tim (with copy to Elizabeth and Marcia),

I was expecting to hear back from you yesterday, as you had indicated, but I realize that it was a holiday and so understand if you were not able to get to this.

I am still hoping that we will be able to work out the issues with this story and come together on the goal that we all want, and that the anthropology community has long been awaiting: Publication in Science of the full investigation I have been conducting for nearly three months.

However, recent events have raised serious concerns for me, and a couple of real red flags. Let's start with my conversation with Elizabeth on Friday, which started off as a very constructive discussion of the story but then ended on three very troubling points:

1. Elizabeth strongly urged me to attempt to subtly convince the "research assistant," as we refer to her in the story, to use her actual name because it would make the story "so much stronger." When I explained that I felt this was wrong, because it would amount to pressure on her--and that I had had thorough discussions with the alleged victim about her options and that she had expressed her strong feelings about how she wanted to be identified--Elizabeth upped the pressure on me and essentially bullied me into reluctantly agreeing. I regret very much that I considered this even momentarily; as you know I wrote to you and Elizabeth immediately after this discussion to withdraw my agreement and stated flatly that I would not do it. In an email shortly after that I stated my opinion that it was unethical.

2. To my great surprise, Elizabeth suggested that the story might end with Brian Richmond having the last word instead of Katie Hinde's very eloquent quote about how the culture was changing. I dismissed this idea out of hand, but on thinking about it more the last few days I really began to wonder what this idea reflects in terms of my editors' views of the story and what fairness and balance means in this context.

3. At the end of this conversation, Elizabeth began to instruct me not to tell anyone when the story was going to appear, other than Brian and the research assistant, until it had actually been published. This would have included such key people in the story as Becky, Bernard, Katie and Kate, etc. I told her that this would be a betrayal of my sources, who have put themselves on the line so that the truth will out, and that I couldn't see doing it. Elizabeth deferred this discussion until later.

In my email exchanges with you, I have expressed great concern that the story has slipped from Jan 29 or Feb 5, as Elizabeth had recently told me would be the latest it would appear, to possibly Feb 12 or even later. As of last Friday, this would have meant almost a full additional month, while the museum conducts its third investigation of Brian--something that is the direct consequence of our doing this yet unpublished story--and is being given free rein to do everything it can to look good even though the facts of my reporting suggest that it has been very slow to act decisively in the fact of the evidence it has.

Also, you told me that the story still needs "serious work," but despite my requests you have not yet told me what this means, leaving me with the impression that you might think my impeccably sourced story is too strong, unfair to Brian or the museum, or other concerns. I hope it is not true that you intend to water the truth of the story down out of a misplaced concern for fairness or fear of litigation (something which has driven much of the editorial direction from the beginning), but I am left so far without clear reassurance about this.

To make matters worse, when I shared my concerns with a few very key sources for the story, and they asked what they could do and wrote to you at my suggestion, you provided them with misleading information. You implied heavily that I had been late with my most recent draft, which is totally untrue. As you well know, Elizabeth and I had a plan to hit the ground running as soon as Brian provided his responses to my email follow up questions, but she was pulled off to do other work causing at least a week's additional delay. But both you and Marcia made this erroneous and prejudicial statement to my trusted sources, forcing me to have to correct the record.

In addition, in your responses, you referred to the need to subject the story to careful and thorough editing, a vague phrase which--combined with the "serious work" remark--reinforces my concerns about your real intentions for this story. I sincerely hope those concerns are misplaced.

I have made two key requests which you agreed to respond to yesterday. First, that we make Feb 5 the latest possible date for online and/or print publication; and second, that you clarify what you mean by "serious work" so that I can have a better idea of whether Science and I are going to be able to agree on a final draft.

Back in December, you said, quite rightly, that we needed to try to come up with a story that I could live with (my name and reputation goes with it, of course) and that Science could feel comfortable publishing. I am still fervently hoping that this will be possible. But I need to hear from you with all due haste.

As you know, I am prepared to publish the story elsewhere, in pretty short order, if we cannot come to agreement about it. You might take that as a threat, but really it is a promise I would need to keep to the community that has given its all for this story, the research assistant who is the alleged victim of a sexual assault, and to my own conscience as a journalist.

I am not going to give you any deadlines or ultimatums about this. If and when the time comes that I feel I have no choice, the story will simply go online. It will be completely clear that everything I write is the result of Science's own investigation, and you will have to either own or disown the result.

best wishes,


cc. Some people who need to see this. 

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
New York University



Supplemental information on the history of my conflict with editors of @sciencemagazine over the Brian Richmond story: Part 1

my requests concerning sexual misconduct story

Michael Balter Sat, Jan 16, 2016 at 11:53 AM
To: Tim Appenzeller <>, Elizabeth Culotta <>, Jeffrey Mervis <>
Cc: Marcia McNutt <>
Dear colleagues,
I have decided to collect in one email my thoughts and concerns about the course of this story, and at the end, what I want to see happen now.
In the following history of this assignment, the first point I want to make is that my initial instincts about the story were correct, even though they were not immediately shared by other colleagues.

We first found out about the allegations in August 2015, when Ann Gibbons reported hearing from a reliable source that Brian Richmond was under investigation by the American Museum of Natural History for alleged sexual misconduct. Ann also mentioned that she had heard complaints about Brian sometime previously when he was chair of the GWU anthropology department, but that no one had filed a formal complaint.
Ann and I had a long email exchange at the time (Elizabeth was on vacation so did not weigh in until later) in which I expressed the view that we should cover the fact that the investigation was happening rather than waiting until it was concluded, much as we had done with the Marc Hauser case. Ann countered that we should wait until the investigation was over before writing about it, and that we couldn't be doing a story every time there was a case of sexual harassment given how often it happens. However, at the ESHE meeting in London in September, to her great credit, Ann began talking to sources about the story and became more convinced about its importance and our need to cover it.

In October I was in Boston/Cambridge for the NASW meeting, shortly after the Geoff Marcy case broke (which was on October 9.) Sexual harassment in the sciences (and in science journalism) was a major topic of discussion at that meeting. While there, I had a telephone conversation with Elizabeth in which she expressed skepticism that the Brian Richmond matter was newsworthy, saying that he was not as famous as Marcy, who supposedly was in the running for the Nobel Prize. For my part, I expressed skepticism about the idea that the prominence of the alleged perpetrator should play such a strong role in news decisions, but also pointed out that Richmond had a very high profile job at a very high profile international institution in the heart of New York City. At that point Elizabeth said that she did want to find out about the investigation, and I was hired on a short-term basis to try to get its report (if such actually existed; as we now know, the investigation had already concluded no later than June 2015.)
In my attempts to get the document or documents, I began talking to numerous sources including the victim of the alleged sexual assault that the museum had investigated, a research assistant at AMNH. That led to the information that Becky Ackermann had helped the legal team, led by Rhea Gordon, in its investigation and we had documentation that it had occurred (in the form of emails at that time.)
That led, rightly, to Science "letting me loose" as I suggested, and assigning me on November 16 to do a story on the case and the institutional response to it. Clearly, Science now saw the importance of the story as well as the credit that would accrue to the magazine if we published it.
Since that time, I have accomplished pretty much everything I was asked to do:
1. I documented the two investigations the museum conducted, one by Human Resources and the second by the legal team, and got the museum to officially acknowledge both the existence of those investigations and their results. More recently, the museum went out of its way to inform me that a third investigation was now underway.
2. I developed a relationship of trust with the alleged victim at the museum such that she was willing to tell her story and have it published, even if she wanted her identity somewhat shielded to protect her privacy. I had extensive discussions with her about how she would be identified, what her options were, and her concerns about her privacy. At that time, at least, Elizabeth fully agreed that she should not be made to feel in any way that she was being pressured to pursue any particular option.

3. After the first draft was submitted, at Elizabeth's request, I conducted substantial supplemental reporting to provide additional context for the story, including such issues as due process, changing concepts of consent, and the changing culture in science with regard to acceptance of sexual misconduct.
4. I succeeded in getting Brian Richmond to not only issue a written statement in response to the allegations, but to provide detailed answers to followup email questions, thus addressing the issue of basic fairness that he was entitled to.
I declined to do two things I was asked to do by Elizabeth, on Jan 15: To try to subtly convince the alleged victim of the alleged sexual assault to have her name used in the story despite her prior clear statement that she did not want to do this; and to withhold information from nearly all my sources about when the story was going to be published until it actually had been. Let's deal with the latter request quickly and briefly: To withhold such information from sources would be a serious betrayal of people who have put their trust in me and in Science. On the alleged victim: Elizabeth said that the story would be "so much stronger" if she could be named. To me that is clearly incorrect. Everyone in the anthropology community knows who she is already, and the rest don't need to know--the story is clear enough for them to understand what is going on. What would be stronger if she were named, however, would be the titillation factor for Science readers, and the further humiliation of someone who is an alleged victim of sexual assault and who is still clearly suffering greatly from the trauma. Are we mainly interested in providing click bait for our own purposes and interests, or are we trying to make a real contribution to the ongoing discussion about sexual harassment in the sciences? 

As you well know, this story has required all of the skills I have developed as a reporter in the past 38 years, including working with sensitive sources (about 40 in all) who have taken great personal and professional risks by talking to me and who need to be calmed and reassured that it is really going to be published, and in a timely fashion.
I have also made it clear that I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the way that our story, which is not published yet, has nevertheless driven events at the museum, including science provost Mike Novacek's request to Brian that he resign--which Brian has declined. That refusal to resign has now led to the third investigation, by T&M Protection Resources, which could be interpreted as an attempt by the museum to look good after the fact--an attempt that we aid and abet by our leisurely pace in publishing the story. More generally, it is not a healthy situation to have a work of unpublished journalism so clearly influencing events in this way. That is fine after a piece is published, but, in my view, for this to be happening beforehand compromises me as a reporter and Science as a publication. Nevertheless, my serious concerns about this have been summarily brushed aside and dismissed by both Tim and Elizabeth.
Also, and this point was more clearly acknowledged by Elizabeth, there is a basic issue of fairness that is violated by further delay: Fairness to the alleged victims of sexual misconduct quoted in this story, and also, fairness to Brian himself. Rightly or wrongly, his career is probably being destroyed by this story (as well as by his own alleged actions) and he deserves to have some idea of when it is likely to be published so that he can respond to it publicly (he has already requested this from me, quite reasonably.) In effect, lives are hanging in the balance here while we take our time publishing this story. As one key source said to me, "I hope the perfect will not become the enemy of the good."

To repeat, I have done everything required to make sure that Science had a solid, impeccably sourced, libel and defamation resistant story that it could be proud of, and which would bring credit to our news team and significant readership both online and in print--at a time when holding onto and expanding that readership in an extremely competitive media environment is critical to the financial survival of both Science and AAAS.
On the other hand, after I filed a second draft of the story in time for Elizabeth to begin working on it Tuesday of this week (ie Jan 12), as agreed, she in fact did not begin working on the edit until Friday the 15th, which clearly was not enough time for her to get it done. Now she is is engaged in other activities until at least the middle of this coming week, ie until about Jan 20. This is not a good sign that Science is moving in a timely fashion to get this very topical story published. And now I am being told that it is unlikely to run before the Feb 12 issue--and there is no guarantee of that date either.

Now I am asking you to do something for me, the reporter on the story, as well as for the many sources who have put themselves on the line for it (not to mention the scientific community at large): Publish the story online no later than February 5, at full length or close to it and without cuts that I will not be able to live with, even if this means delaying a (possibly condensed) print version of the story another week or so after that. Such a publishing schedule gives Science more than enough time to insure that the story is accurate and comprehensive, and to conduct the necessary legal review.

And this request is more than a reasonable compromise: It would require you to move the story up only one week from the date that you are now considering, although it would mean that you would have to commit firmly to that date, at least for the online version. (As you know, in the fall of 2014, four female colleagues at Science lost their jobs, sacrificed to the new supposed "digital first" strategy--and yet it seems that "print first" is still ruling our publication strategy in the case of longer stories like this one.)

In the meantime, I reserve my options as the writer and reporter on the story, whose credibility and reputation are at stake, to insure that it is published in a timely fashion. If I feel forced to publish the story elsewhere--something I would very much regret having to do--I will take full responsibility for its content, but make it clear that it originated as a Science assignment.
I look forward to hearing from you further.
best, Michael
cc. Marcia

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
New York University



Sunday, April 3, 2016

Last word before exiting: My editors at @sciencemagazine pressured me to do something highly unethical on the Brian Richmond story

One week from today, I will no longer be under contract with Science after 25 years.

My efforts to explain why I was terminated have generated considerable discussion but also a great deal of confusion. That's because I left out something very important, in an effort to protect my editors--including Science's news editor, who notified me that I was terminated--from public exposure of a very serious ethical lapse on their part.

I have told a number of people about this privately, and this morning I posted the following on the BioAnthropology News Facebook page. I am pasting it in below. It will be the last statement I will make on this blog about what happened; if anyone has questions, they should contact me directly and I will attempt to answer them. It was not an easy decision to take this last step, but I do it in the interests of telling the truth.

I am hearing that there is still a great deal of confusion about what happened between me and Science. With the [American Association of Physical Anthropologists] meeting coming up, that means there will continue to be rumors and possibly discussion in this community based on this confusion. I have been trying to hold off saying more publicly on my blog, although there is so much more I could say. However, I have been telling some people privately, and in response to someone who just wrote me yesterday I have said the following. I hope it will help this community, at least, to understand things a little better about what was going on behind the scenes. But it requires me to, very reluctantly, accuse my editors of pressuring me to engage in behavior that is widely considered unethical in both journalistic and sexual assault victim advocate circles. I hope this will be the last thing I will have to say about it so that we can all move on:

"There is much more to what happened than I have said publicly, but briefly everything blew up between me and my editors on January 15 when they pressured me to try to convince the "research assistant" to go public with her name. She had already decided firmly she did not want to do that; to have gone back to her would be highly unethical--it would have been perceived as pressure--and most journalists know that. My editors lost their moral compass in pursuit of a "hot" story, that was their motivation at least as much as concern about the issues: They thought it would make Science look good and redeem its previous miscues and bad reputation on the sexual harassment topic. I refused what they asked, in shock, and I then began making demands concerning the timeliness of publication and insisting on guarantees of the integrity of the story, and threatened to publish it elsewhere if they were not met. They by and large capitulated to those demands, but now I am paying the price. I memorialized all of these events in lengthy emails written contemporaneously to my editors, usually within a day of the events, and have them available if they are needed and/or if my account of events is challenged."

Update: Although I don't intend to post any more blog posts about these events, I will update this post as necessary. On January 16, the day after my editors pressured me to go back to the "research assistant," I wrote a lengthy memo to them, including our news editor, my editor on the story (identified as "E" below), and Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt (who was fully aware of events the entire time.) Here is an excerpt relevant to the ethical issues at play:

[E] said that the story would be "so much stronger" if she could be named. To me that is clearly incorrect. Everyone in the anthropology community knows who she is already, and the rest don't need to know--the story is clear enough for them to understand what is going on. What would be stronger if she were named, however, would be the titillation factor for Science readers, and the further humiliation of someone who is an alleged victim of sexual assault and who is still clearly suffering greatly from the trauma. Are we mainly interested in providing click bait for our own purposes and interests, or are we trying to make a real contribution to the ongoing discussion about sexual harassment in the sciences?