#womanspace. You Trollin', Nature?

Nov 17 2011 Published by under Activism

I will admit, Sci's #sfn11 science hangover is massive. I spent the last five days surrounded by science, getting little sleep, crappy food, and working out my liver heavily (always difficult on me, Sci has the liver of a chihuahua). Today all I really wanted to do was finish up the Neuroblogging, lie around in my pjs, and work on two paper drafts and a grant (even when we take the day off, we work from home. Life in academia, my friends. Behold the glamor of my paper drafts and pjs).

All was going well and then my twitter feed filled up with the #womanspace. Dr. Anne Jefferson (of the really wonderfully accessible Highly Allocthonous geology blog) clued me in as well.

What is #womanspace? It's a response to a piece published back in September in Nature. When I went to read the original piece, most of what I saw was some inept blathering on the subject of shopping, and how two old guy scientists are apparently too hopeless to buy clothing for a child. They tried to relate it to physics somehow, something about women accessing alternate universes to achieve shopping-fu. From what I could tell, the piece lacked logic, was badly written, and was generally just kind of crappy, and I couldn't get my hackles up about it.

Then I showed it to Mr. S. Spake Mr. S "that's more like a second rate blog post. Isn't Nature kind of a big deal though?"

And therein lies the problem.

Mr. S is not a scientist, but he knows Nature. Everybody knows Nature. Nature is one of the Big Three Journals, in which a young biomedical scientist such as myself is expected to publish in order to achieve the coveted tenure track position. Were this piece of 50's era sexism, smelling of old farts and cigar smoke, published in a normal blog or paper, it would attract little, if any attention, which would only be what it deserved. Such obviously old fashioned tropes, insulting both to women and to men (most men can buy kids' pants, I assure you), should barely appear on our radar anymore, and are generally dismissed with a roll of the eyes. We all know better by now.

But this wasn't published in a second rate blog. It was published...in Nature. Nature, where I am expected to submit my most beautiful science and lovingly crafted results. What is the point of putting such outdated sexist ideas in a high caliber journal? Why on earth put something so eye-rollingly irritating in a journal which is supposed to represent the highest achievement of the meritocracy* that is academic science?

I can only conclude that Nature is trolling.

My conclusions arise from two comments. First that of Henry Gee, the editor who published the piece, and who expressed amazement for lack of outraged comments. Not to mention a tweet from the author himself, noting that he would catch flak. The publication of two angry comments on the issues has finally evoked the storm they were apparently trying to stir up.

It makes me wonder. What IS the point of Nature's "futures" section? According to their site, "Futures" is:

In 1999 and 2000, and again in 2005 and 2006, Nature ran Futures, a popular series of science-fiction vignettes on what the coming millennium had to offer. A separate strand of Futures now hums along in Nature's sister journal Nature Physics.

Now, Nature is proud to present the return of Futures to the mother ship: a forum for the best new science-fiction writing, exploring some of the themes that might challenge us as the future unfolds. Prepare to be amused, stimulated, even outraged, but know this: the future is sooner than you think.

Ok. Previous editions of Futures have included some interesting stuff, and some quite good (including a piece by Stephanie Zvan which was beautifully written, conflicting, thought provoking, and creepy as heck). But I fail to see how the current piece under discussion fits into the "best new science-fiction writing" which "explor[es] some of the themes that might challenge us as the future unfolds". In contrast to previous issues, the #womanspace piece is poorly written, not funny, and not worthy of the journal (people may, at this point, accuse me of having no sense of humor. In fact, as my blog attests, I do have one, but I'm afraid it's just not...simple enough to LOL at Womanspaces).

So I look at the Womanspace piece with annoyance (really, Nature? One of the biggest scientific journals in the world publishing things which pander to ridiculous and outdated gender myths?), but also with puzzlement. Y U Trollin', Nature? Page views are low? Nothing like a fight for rustling up some page views, so good going there. But is it really worth the association of your little red and white 'n' with such material?

Others have explained the issues better than I, check out the links below!!
Science Sushi
Highly Allocthonous
The Biology Files
Context and Variation
Proflike Substance
Once Upon a Time in the West of London
Stages of Succession
Doing Good Science
Compound Eye
Dr. Isis
Galileo's Pendulum

*heh. Yeah. Well. It's SUPPOSED to be a meritocracy.

9 responses so far

  • Adriana says:

    I kept shaking my head at that piece (precisely because it came out in Nature, of all places!), and then looked at Gee's comment, and I came to the conclusion that it has to be an experiment, a social science experiment maybe? There is no other logical explanation for Nature publishing such boring drivel, otherwise. Although of course, it could be just plain old sexism. But why in Nature? I'm still shaking my head.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well there is always the alternate hypothesis folks...that this poorly done (for the standards of the subfield) bit of "science fiction" is in fact entirely consisten with all the other sections of Nature. Whatever will get attention is the key. Damn the sub-specialty quality because the NPG cachet will keep most people from being willing to admit that the Emperor is, in fact, stark nekkid.

  • David E says:

    I'm glad you said that, DrugMonkey.

    I get a bit annoyed at the aura that's attached to Nature. I say this as a post-graduate student who's heard over and over how important this journal is to publish in. But Nature isn't one of the important journals in my field. It's not the place I go to find the latest news in my area of study. So why is it an important journal to publish in? Because employers will look kindly on someone with a publication in Nature. Why is that? Because it's such an important journal to publish in. You could say the same thing about Science.

    This wouldn't be so bad - it would become a comment on the bureaucratic/neoliberal (no, not contradictory) degeneration of university administration, rather than a criticism of the journals themselves - if Nature and Science were better *as* publications.

    But every Science or Nature article I read feels like it's been cropped to all hell. How do you fit an important contribution to science into a single page? Nature & Science's editorial board seem to think they know how. Except it doesn't really work, because science actually requires a bit of reading and explanation sometimes.

    And explanation requires space. I can tell when an article's been edited for length. it stands out very starkly in scientific papers, and it doesn't just detract from style, it detracts from quality of explanation and discussion.

    And now these two journals are leading the field in this phenomenon of "supporting online material". "Supporting material" sounds like something that's a bit beside the point of the research, something you might be interested in as a signal to direct your own research - like the last few lines of the Conclusion.

    But that's not the way it's used. Science and Nature both put important material into the "supporting online" stuff. Key points, in fact, often end with a reference to the online content.

    I am hardly some old codger who doesn't see the use of new technology - I'm part of the generation that has grown up with the internet as a normal part of daily life. I think this is why supporting online material looks so unprofessional to me - because I actually have some familiarity with how the internet works (particularly it's instability). And I don't view links to "supporting online material" as a component part of the paper I'm reading.

    So what I see is a whole swathe of researchers pushed into editing their articles to remove as much insight and explanation as humanly possible without making things utterly illegible, and then being expected to leave important supporting data - not "supplementary data", but key points in many cases - OUTSIDE of the paper that is actually published, catalogued and archived by libraries.

    Hell, Science even goes so far in reducing the amount of stuff that it has to print that they chop their references up to make them impossible to read.

    Why are these considered reputable journals? Why do I have to put my research into these third-rate publications to be considered a reputable scientist? It's irritating, and I hope that my generation is able to shed the attachment people feel towards these names (and it is just the names, seriously) and bring about some sort of cultural change here.

    This "Womanspace" thing is just the most recent manifestation of an unprofessional editorship. Can we acknowledgement that there is actually something deeper that is wrong with these journals to begin with?

  • epj says:

    Oh well, things are worst than I thought.

    Look, I really think that one of the main problems is money (the economic system is not sufficient for the population, all of it).

    Another one is the fact most science is not really applied, and therefore not sustainable. You connect that fact to the issue above.

    And maybe, just maybe, 'creativity' went too far, or in the wrong direction.

    Wake up! we need rational people, we have to come up with solutions, good solutions, how can you not see what is happening?

    Oh well, wtf

  • Greg Laden says:

    In reaction to Womanspace, I give you Manspace.

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