Academics draft letter complaining of ‘stereotypes’ in AAAS publications

Move follows controversy over comment pieces and cover page for Science

July 16, 2015
Comment button on keyboard
Source: iStock

Concerned researchers have drafted a letter to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to address what they see as “damaging stereotypes” in the society’s publications.

In particular, the letter refers to four episodes that occurred with the organisation’s high-profile journal Science in the past 12 months.

The most recent incident the letter refers to are statements made in an article published on 10 July in the Working Life” section of the journal. It reads: “I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife – also a Ph.D. scientist – worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities.”

These statements upheld “sexist stereotypes” about gendered career roles, the letter says.

Next, the letter addresses an online post from Science Careers that was published in June, and suggested a postdoctoral researcher should tolerate her supervisor looking down her shirt. “His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice,” it stated. The article was later retracted.  

Furthermore, the letter also criticises a cover page that Science ran for their Aids/HIV special issue last July, which presented a head-cropped photograph of transgender sex workers in Jakarta, Indonesia. The cover affected “three underrepresented communities – women, people of color and the transgender community – along with its general harmful representation of disembodied female bodies”, the letter adds.

The cover resulted in reactions in media outlets worldwide and a surge of social media messages from academics. But a tweet from the @SciCareersEditor Twitter account made matters worse, according to the letter; by stating “am I the only one who finds moral indignation really boring?”

Marcia McNutt, the editor-in-chief of Science, has since apologised for the offence caused by the cover. Some academics have, however, noted that the cover was at one point removed from Science’s website, but is now available online again.

“As a leading and respected scientific journal with a diverse readership, what is published in Science and its related communications can strongly, either positively or negatively, influence stereotypes,” say the letter’s authors. “We feel that AAAS has a responsibility to the academic community and can take simple steps to ensure that their actions are in line with their stated mission of fostering diversity.”

Some of the articles in question are opinion or comment pieces, notes Stephen Curry, a structural biologist from Imperial College London and a signatory to the letter. “People have different opinions about what is and is not tolerable in terms of sexual harassment in the workplace.” But, he adds, the institution should be “more careful” to filter out controversial comments.

Science and Science Careers in particular have had a couple of missteps, which we regret,” said Dr McNutt. “We’ve been rethinking our strategy and are in the process of changing oversight for Science Careers, but not fast enough.” 

Dr McNutt went further to point out that the journal’s first person accounts are being mistaken as advice columns, and says that such future accounts will be paired with alternative commentary or perspective.

“AAAS as an organisation has always been, and will continue to be strongly focused on promoting the role of women in science,” she said. “More than half of our senior management positions [are] held by women.”

Over 300 academics have so far signed the letter, which is due to be sent to the AAAS early next week.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs