New ‘ethical guidelines’ for top scientific journals aim to stamp out harmful research – but can they succeed?

Julia Koblitz / Unsplash

The British journal Nature was founded in 1869 and is one of the most influential and prestigious scientific research bodies in the world. Its publisher, Nature Portfolio (a subsidiary of academic publishing giant Springer Nature), also publishes dozens of scholarly journals under the Nature banner, covering almost every branch of science.


  • Cordelia Fine

    Professor, History and Philosophy of Science Programme, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne

In August, the company released new ethical guidelines for researchers. The new guidelines are part of Nature’s “attempt to acknowledge and learn from our deep and recent troubled past, understand the roots of injustice, and work to address them as we aim to open up the scientific enterprise.” and welcoming to all”.

An accompanying editorial argues that the ethical responsibility of researchers should include people and groups “who do not participate in the research but who may be harmed by its publication”.

It also notes that for some research, “the potential harms to the populations studied may outweigh the benefits of publication,” and allows editors to make such decisions. Editors may edit, amend, or “correct” articles after publication. They can also refuse to post or remove objectionable content or articles, such as “[s]exist, misogynistic and/or anti-LGBTQ+ content”.

The councils are correct that academic freedom, like other freedoms, is not absolute. It is also legitimate to suggest that science can indirectly harm social groups and that their rights can sometimes outweigh academic freedom. Despite this, some aspects of the new guidelines are concerning.

When Science Goes Wrong

There is no doubt that science can cause harm, both to its subjects and to other groups. Let us take an example from the end of the 19th century.

Harvard professor Edward Clarke proposed that attending higher education would cause fertility problems in women because energy would be diverted from the reproductive system to the brain.

Sex in Education by Edward Clarke; or, A Fair Opportunity for Girls, argued that girls were physically unsuited to education. Wikimedia, CC BY

Clarke’s account, featured in a bestselling book, has been credited with deepening public opposition to universities opening their doors to women.

On the face of it, this appears to be exactly the kind of objectionable content that Nature’s new guidelines say it wants to edit or remove.

But the problem with Clarke’s account was not the offensive conclusions he drew about women’s ability to grow intellectually, or the discriminatory policies he supported.

After all, if he had been right? If going to college really harmed women’s reproductive health, they would surely want to know.

The real problem with Clarke’s work was that it was bad science. Indeed, science historian Naomi Oreskes has noted:

Late 19th century feminists found Clarke’s program transparent and her non-empirical methodology ripe for attack.

So drawing a particular type of conclusion about women and girls is not what makes science content sexist. Nor does it favor one party or another on gender-related policies. So what is it?

One answer is that it is the science in which gendered assumptions bias the decisions of scientists. In the words of historian and philosopher of science Sarah Richardson, it is a science in which:

gendered practices or assumptions in a scientific field have prevented researchers from accurately interpreting data, caused inferential leaps, blocked consideration of alternative hypotheses, overdetermined theoretical choice, or biased descriptive language.

Language and labels

The guidelines also state that scientists should “use language that is inclusive, respectful and non-stigmatizing”. This deserves a pause to reflect.

Scientists should certainly be mindful of language and avoid causing unnecessary offense, injury or stigma. However, the language must also be scientifically useful and meaningful.

For example, it is the nature of categories that certain entities or individuals are excluded. This should be based on scientific criteria and not political ones.

Or consider the following, offered as part of the working definitions in the guide:

There is a wide range of gender identities including but not limited to transgender, gender queer, gender fluid, non-binary, gender variant, genderless, agender, non-gender, bigender, trans male, trans female , trans male, trans female and cisgender.

People should of course be able to identify with the gender label they prefer. However, “gender identity” is a vague and contested concept, and these labels (and their meanings) are subjectively defined and continue to change rapidly over time.

Labels that are personally meaningful, deeply felt, or – as in some cases – part of a political project to dismantle gender binaries, may not necessarily be scientifically useful.

An invitation to politics

By presenting a wide range of content as potentially subject to editorial intervention or veto for harm, the guidance opens the door to the politicization of science. The other materials caught in this net are:

content that infringes – or could reasonably be perceived to infringe – the rights and dignity of an individual or a human group on the basis of socially constructed or socially relevant human groupings.

But scientists often do research that provides information used to develop policies, which will include the granting of various rights. The results of such searches may therefore sometimes be unpleasant for groups with economic, political, religious, emotional or other interests.

The guidelines allow these groups to try to have “corrected” or retracted findings contrary to these interests. There’s not much that can’t be defined as a right, a harm or an affront to dignity – all concepts notoriously difficult to define and reach consensus on.

What will determine who will succeed in their attempt to have articles edited or removed? The potential harms will be assessed by journal editors and reviewers – and they will view them through the prism of their own prior assumptions, ideologies and value systems.

Publishers may also face pressure to avoid tarnishing their journal’s brand, either in response to, or in anticipation of, social media crowds. After all, Springer Nature ultimately answers to its shareholders.

The liability of publishers

As we know from the work of feminists and other critical scholars, scientific claims based on biased research have harmed marginalized groups in several ways: by explaining group inequalities in status, power, and resources ; pathologize; stigmatizing; and justify the denial of rights.

There is no contradiction between acknowledging these wrongdoings and worrying about Nature’s new directives.

Scientific journals have an important role to play in facilitating socially responsible science in these sensitive areas.

Journal editors should certainly make every effort to uncover and examine hidden biases embedded in research, for example by commissioning reviews from experts with different or critical perspectives. However, they should not guess which scientific claims will cause social harm and then exercise a veto.

The conversation

Cordelia Fine does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.

/ Courtesy of The Conversation. This material from the original organization/authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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