"Nature" Editors Acknowledge Journal's Contributions to Scientific RacismBreaking News
tags: racism, intellectual history, eugenics
In 1904, Nature printed a speech about eugenics by the statistician Francis Galton. One of the foremost scientists of his day, Galton defined eugenics as “the science which deals with all influences that improve and develop the inborn qualities of a race”. He said that “the aim of eugenics is to represent each class or sect by its best specimens, causing them to contribute more than their proportion to the next generation”.
Galton’s scientifically inaccurate ideas about eugenics had a huge, damaging influence that the world is still grappling with. The idea that some groups — people of colour or poor people, for example — were inferior has fuelled irreparable discrimination and racism. Nature published several papers by Galton and other eugenicists, thus giving a platform to these views. At the time, eugenics “was an active area of research and considered a very legitimate one”, says Melinda Baldwin, a historian at the University of Maryland, College Park, who wrote Making Nature, a 2015 history of the journal. Nature, she says, “helped to spread eugenic doctrine by publishing those scientists”.
Galton’s papers are part of a shameful seam running through Nature’s history. Since its founding more than 150 years ago, this journal has developed a reputation for publishing some of the world’s most important scientific discoveries. But we have also published material that contributed to bias, exclusion and discrimination in research and society. Some of our articles were offensive and harmful, a legacy we are now making an overdue effort to examine and expose. They contrast starkly with the journal’s current goal of fostering equity, diversity and inclusion.
We have been examining Nature’s history in the lead up to a forthcoming special issue on racism in research, to be published next month. We promised to do this in 2020, after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, triggered a wave of protests over the harms caused by systemic racism. Four guest editors (Melissa Nobles, Chad Womack, Ambroise Wonkam and Elizabeth Wathuti) who are guiding our special issue have highlighted the importance of scientific institutions acknowledging the ways in which their histories have compounded systemic racism — and although this editorial is not a comprehensive account of the journal’s contributions to racism and other problematic legacies of science, it is a start.
This is not just a problem in Nature’s deeper history. In more recent years, we have also, to our shame, published some articles that were offensive or destructive, or attracted criticism for being overly elitist. “The scientific journal, back in the day, was the mouthpiece to a very privileged and highly exclusive sector of society, and it is actually continuing to do the same thing today,” says Subhadra Das, a science historian and writer in London who has researched scientific racism and eugenics.
We know that Nature’s archives contain numerous items that are harmful and can be upsetting. But, like other scholarly publishers, we think it is important to keep all of our content accessible, because it is part of the scientific and historical record. It is important for researchers today and in the future to study and learn from what happened in the past. That said, we are developing a way to alert readers that our archive contains articles that do not represent our current values and would be unacceptable to publish today. Nature will not shy away from publishing rigorous research, even if it is controversial. But research and researchers are part of broader society, and we commit to working harder to ensure that the research we publish does not cause harm. We also pledge to publish guidance on improving inclusion and ethics in research collaborations, and on how authors need to consider sex and gender reporting in study design.