Scandalous Science

Had it somehow been revealed, a mere decade ago, that scientific journals had kept tabs on the race or sexual orientation of its writers, it would have sent waves of outrage through the scientific community. How dare anyone suggest that a scientist’s race, gender or love life play a role in assessing the quality of her work, her ideas or her discoveries? Scandalous. Outrageous. Offensive. Until it wasn’t.

Studies continue to reaffirm that diversity — on a multitude of axes — boosts performance and the quality of work across disciplines. Science is no exception. Only researchers as diverse as the people and phenomena they study, experts said, can accurately capture the dizzying amount of variation in the natural world and innovate beyond it. Scientists who hail from across spectra of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and more are also uniquely equipped to collaborate with communities that have been ignored, silenced or even exploited and abused by the discriminatory practices of Western scientists.

While the links included in this New York Times post fall significantly short of making their purported points, the notion that diverse perspectives give rise to greater breadth of scientific discovery should be uncontroversial. At the very least, it should be uncontroversial that no one should be excluded or unwelcome because of their race or gender. After all, it’s science. Who cares if a black deaf gender fluid scientist cures cancer? It’s all about curing cancer, not the the attributes of the scientist who does so.

It was an invitation for Dr. Babdor, an immunologist at the University of California, San Francisco, to write a blog post to share his “personal experience as a Black man in academia,” the email said. The sender was a marketing manager from Springer Nature, a company that publishes Nature and thousands of other scientific journals. Springer Nature most likely needed little introduction, the email noted to Dr. Babdor, “since you have published with us before.”

Dr. Babdor recalled being excited and flattered by the message. But then, he said, “I started to spiral.”

Was Dr. Babdor’s invitation based on his brilliant work, the quality of his research, his academic prominence? Or was it merely because of his skin color?

Three years prior, he had been a first author on a paper published in Nature Immunology, a highly respected journal. But even after nearly a decade in his field, Dr. Babdor could not name more than a few other Black immunologists. He couldn’t help but wonder how much of an anomaly he was.

Why there aren’t more black immunologists might well be an excellent question, and encouraging more black people to become immunologists would certainly be a worthy cause. After all, the idea of leaving behind an untapped universe of scientific potential for reasons unrelated to their capacity to contribute to the betterment of science is just plain foolish. What society would not want to advance its medical science? Not including every person with the potential to do so, whether on their own or in collaboration with others, would be absurdly counterproductive.

But that’s not the driving force here.

When asked by The New York Times to provide data on the racial and ethnic diversity of researchers publishing on their platforms, several journals or journal families that deal in the biosciences — including Cell Press, eLife, JAMA Network, the Lancet, PLoS, PNAS, the New England Journal of Medicine and Springer Nature — said that they did not keep tabs on these metrics, or had no numbers to share. A few publishers said that they were early in the process of collecting this data, or had begun discussing the possibility, but could not yet disclose details.

Why would a scientific journal maintain data on the sexual orientation of its authors? Aren’t articles published based on the quality of the submissions, the interest of their discoveries and the value of their research? Does genitalia make someone’s research more valuable?

“They were making those statements from even less of a grounded place than I thought,” said Ambika Kamath, a behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “What does it mean to say ‘I’m in favor of diversity’ when you haven’t even reckoned with what the state of diversity is in your own institution?”

If this point simultaneously strikes a chord, yet the sound is dissonant, perhaps it’s due to the confusion between inputs and outputs. If it turns out that there is a lack of diversity for an untoward reason, as you just can’t force black people to become behavioral ecologists if they prefer to be immunologists, or lawyers for that matter, then the lack of publishable scientific research isn’t a product of nefarious discrimination, but the limited number of black people in the universe of publishable scientists.

Is that the journals’ fault? Is that a problem that journals can cure?

“Science is publicized as a meritocracy: a larger, data-driven enterprise in which the best work and the best people float to the top,” Dr. Extavour said. In truth, she added, universal, objective standards are lacking, and “the access that authors have to editors is variable.”

Is it, in fact, “true” that there is a shortfall in publishing black scientists, considering the primary complaint is that journals don’t track the race of writers, or as Dr. Babdor noted, there just weren’t other black immunologists around? If so, then the “scientific” solution would be blind submissions, so whatever potential for discrimination was eliminated and scientific scholarship would be the meritocracy it wants to be. Instead, they went the other way.

To democratize this process, editors and reviewers need to level the playing field, in part by reflecting the diversity that journals claim they seek, Dr. Kamath said. “People think this is a cosmetic or surface issue,” she said. “But in reality, the very nature of your scholarship would change if you took diversity, equity and inclusion seriously.”

Does diversity trump quality? Dr. Kamath is right that the “very nature” of scholarship would change. The cure for cancer might not get published, but isn’t that worth it to make sure every issue of JAMA includes an article by a one-legged sexually-curious Aleut?

11 thoughts on “Scandalous Science

  1. Richard Kopf

    SHG,

    One of my kids is an academic, the equivalent of an associate professor at Charles Darwin University in Australia, teaching quantitative methods regarding the environment and doing research on fish in the ocean and in Australian rivers. He has published a lot.

    Over the many years he studied and published and researched and taught I have listened to him about publication standards for peer reviewed journals. My impression is that the peer review process is fraught with problems already, but those problems have nothing to do with the personal characteristics (like skin color) of the author.

    I can’t and don’t speak for my kid. So said, culling for skin color or sexual orientation or other irrelevancies about the author by the editors of peer reviewed journals is laughable.

    But if that becomes the rule, I want more astrologists in every journal. We will then finally have reached the age of Aquarius.

    All the best.

    RGK

    1. F. Lee Billy

      In other words, peer review is to review as Pier 1 is to quality home furnishings. We are shocked!

  2. phv3773

    The left has not caught on to the fact that assiduously tracking everything by race is not the path to a colorblind society.

      1. John

        Why shouldn’t it be though.

        You have to ask yourself. Do you care about knowledge and ideas, or do you just care about the color of the person making them.

        True science must be color blind.

  3. Rengit

    I guess the question raised by Dr. Kamath is, then, is it really “science” unless all 8+ billion people in the world have given their input and singularly unique perspective on a given study or research topic? Since apparently diverse perspectives count for so much; we can only get better by getting everyone’s opinion.

  4. Erik H

    This is a solution without a problem.

    The lack of POC in the hard-science publications often reflects the degree of SUCCESS of affirmative action, elsewhere.

    High-level, successful, hard-science research is the domain of an elite few. Being extraordinarily smart and extraordinarily educated is not a guarantee of success by any means, but it IS a minimum requirement: virtually everyone who is successful is in the top 0.1% of the population in both intelligence and education.

    There are a proportionately equal # of POC in the intelligence category, of course; POC are just as smart.

    There are FAR fewer POC in the education category, though, largely because POC are much more likely to get screwed over by society and history at the lower-education levels and not go to college at all. And even if you can fix it, that’s brutally slow.

    Maybe a kid from an LA project *would have been* smart enough to go to Stuyvesant given the chance (there are plenty of kids like that), they end up in a shitty LA project school. By the time they enter high school they’re years behind the Stuyvesant kid. By the time they enter college that gap has increased further. Even if you let them into Berkeley and give them all the remedial education in the world, that’s a damn big gap. And if they’re years behind the Stuyvesant grad in literally every subject, can you blame them if they don’t want to aim for a PhD in chemistry?

    So you end up with a fairly small pool of super-educated, super-smart POC. And here’s the rub: If you are in the top 0.1% in both of those categories *and* you have hard-science skills *and* you are a POC, then lots of rich, powerful, people are competing for your attention.
    1) Many of those fields will offer a higher %age of success (most science fails and there is a lot of “OK, let’s start again” going on);
    2) Many of those fields offer a higher salary (most scientists are not rich);
    3) Many of those fields offer a MUCH shorter career path (a PhD is 5-6 years plus ~3 years combined for postdoc and fellowship, all before you even have a CHANCE to run your own lab, much less actually run your own lab well. Even with AA policies which are designed to shorten that for POC, there’s still usually a minimum level of expertise and you can’t get around it.)

    Those same people–who, let’s remember, are in the top 0.1% of smarts and education–are, by their nature, smart enough to realize those things. If they can take advantage of AA policies at Google or a finanicial firm or a defense contractor and make a million in the first few years after graduation, versus spending those same years as an underpaid post-doc working 50 hours for $35k/year and teaching bored undergrads… can you blame them?

    As you might expect, the same is NOT actually true for non-hard-science folks. You don’t need to be in the top 0.1% of intelligence to write an autobiographical article, nor to get a Critical Studies PhD, Ed.D., etc. And because the publication standards are inherently much lower, and AA is at least as strong if not stronger, then it’s much more possible to get a faculty or tenure-track job soon after graduation.

    1. F. Lee Billy

      Okay, the POC we get. But AA? Did you mean Alcoholics Anonymouse, or something more abstruse?
      And then there’s Triple A, which is definitely in the “domain of an elite few” drivers without wheels. Ahem! Driver-less cars are the wave of the futcha–for those who can aFord them, naturally. Progress does not come cheap, and global warming is expensive in more ways than one, so the Xperts say.

      Who needs AA or AAA in these pandemic times of stay-at-home.work-from-home Moms? Where are the dads? Good question, doc. Where they always are: MIA.

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