Springer Nature ‘shares concerns’ as article sparks racism claims

Publisher says investigation under way after academics call for retraction of ‘unscholarly’ paper by influential voice on US welfare reform

July 29, 2020

Springer Nature has said a “full investigation” is under way and it “shares concerns” after one of its journals published an article, by an influential voice on US welfare reform, described as “unscholarly” and “overtly racist” by nearly 1,000 academics calling for the article’s retraction.

Lawrence Mead, professor of politics and public policy at New York University, told Times Higher Education that his article was “not racist”.

The editor of the journal, Society, has now apologised for his decision to publish the article and recommended retraction.

The abstract of the commentary article says that in the US “racial minorities…all come from non-Western cultures where most people seek to adjust to outside conditions rather than seeking change”, whereas “Westerners are moralistic about social order, demanding that behaviour respect universal principles”.

“These differences best explain why minorities – especially blacks and Hispanics – typically respond only weakly to chances to get ahead through education and work, and also why crime and other social problems run high in low-income areas,” Professor Mead writes in the article, drawn from his 2019 book, Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power.

“Cultural difference helps to explain the two most puzzling things about the long-term poor: their tepid response to opportunity and the frequent disorder in their personal lives,” he also writes.

Professor Mead’s biography on the NYU website says he has been a “principal exponent of work requirements in welfare, the approach that now dominates national policy”, and has “consulted with federal, state and local governments in this country and with several foreign countries”.

Mohamad Bazzi, a professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and one of the article’s critics, pointed out on Twitter that Professor Mead “is not some marginal academic. He was an intellectual architect of welfare reform in the 1990s. And he advised Rudy Giuliani when he was NYC mayor.”

A letter calling for the article to be retracted, signed thus far by 897 academics, has been sent to Jonathan Imber, Society editor-in-chief and Jean Glasscock professor of sociology at Wellesley College, as well as to Springer Nature.

“The piece is unscholarly, overtly racist and has no place in a publication that purports to be a serious academic journal,” says the letter, coordinated by Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford.

“The author makes extreme claims about the causes of poverty but does not back these up with empirical evidence. He also makes sweeping statements about the capacities and virtues of entire racial and ethnic groups, again without attempting to evidence them. That this paper was accepted raises serious questions about the editorial process and the credibility of your journal.     

“In the context of wider questions about institutional racism in academia, we demand that the paper be immediately retracted and an external inquiry be held into how the editors and reviewers either failed to spot or wilfully overlooked its numerous flaws.”

A separate petition, signed by “educators, scholars, researchers, advocates and community leaders”, says the article shows that “outdated and odious suppositions…still hold sway in the very academic circles that should be challenging, not strengthening, racism”.

A Springer Nature spokeswoman said: “We share the concerns that many have raised about this article. An expedited full investigation is under way. As an immediate measure, and in agreement with the editor-in-chief, an editor’s note has been placed on the article and we are taking every step necessary to resolve this situation swiftly.

“As a company we want to make clear that Springer Nature stands against racism and discrimination of any kind. We strive to play an active role in promoting and celebrating diversity across our company.”

The editor’s note now attached to the article says: “Concerns have been raised with this article and are being investigated. Further editorial action will be taken as appropriate once the investigation into the concerns is complete and all parties have been given an opportunity to respond in full.”

Professor Mead told THE that both his book and commentary article “argue that lower-income groups with origins outside the West have trouble assimilating to the individualist culture of Western countries, including the US and UK. That I think is the main reason why long-term poverty persists even in the midst of affluence. My main source is scholars of world cultural differences.”

He added that he has “received many hostile comments” in response to the article. “Most say the article is racist and should be withdrawn,” Professor Mead continued. “But it's not racist. My sources say that the culture of a group or nation is all due to socialization and has no necessary connection to race.”

Professor Mead also said that a “minority” of comments in response to the article “are full of praise, calling the article non-contentious, important, original and a valuable challenge to academic orthodoxy”.

Professor Imber said his decision to publish the commentary “was a mistake, and one I deeply regret. My intent was to have this commentary published alongside two critical reviews of his [Professor Mead’s] 2019 book…on which Mead’s commentary is based, that identify flaws in Mead’s arguments.”

He added: “The decision was entirely my responsibility and no other member of the editorial board of Society was consulted or participated in that decision. 

“I have recommended the call for retraction...I deeply regret the pain that this has caused. I apologise to everyone affected by this.”

A statement from the leadership of NYU’s Faculty of Arts and Science and its Wagner Graduate School of Public Service notes that Professor Mead’s article “caused great distress within our community. We share this sentiment. We recognise that Professor Mead has the same rights to freedom of expression as we all do and are firm in our commitment to the principle of academic freedom. At the same time, we reject what we believe to be the article’s false, prejudicial and stigmatising assertions about the culture of communities of colour in the United States.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

The normal academic method if you disagree with what someone else has published is to produce your own article rebutting their work, showing why you think it is flawed. Apparently some people want to sink to the depths of Twitter, where the acceptable approach to an opinion you feel is wrong is to howl in outrage, abusing and harassing the person who expressed that opinion. There is no place for such behaviour in academic debate. Those who think Mead is wrong had better get writing...
I totally agree: Hysterical reactions from a mob, even an academic mob, achieve nothing. The radically different levels of academic achievement by different non-western ethnic groups here in the UK suggest that Prof Mead's thesis is easily falsifiable. But as you rightly point out, that requires work.

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