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The Hindu
The Hindu
R. Prasad

Journal editor’s firing could negatively impact freedom of speech

The dismissal of journal editor Michael Eisen, fired for sarcastic tweets on the Israel-Palestine conflict, will have a chilling effect on academics and researchers which would affect much needed reform as well as scientific integrity 

On October 24, Michael Eisen was fired as the Editor-in-Chief of the prominent open access journal eLife. Taking to X (formerly Twitter) Professor Eisen said he was fired by the journal for “retweeting” on October 14 a satirical article published in The Onion that criticised dying Palestinians for not condemning the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas. His quote tweet said: “The Onion speaks with more courage, insight and moral clarity than the leaders of every academic institution put together. I wish there were a @TheOnion university”.

Soon after the October 14 tweet went viral, there was huge criticism and resignations from the journal. Following the backlash, he tweeted again the same day to clarify his position: “Every sane person on Earth is horrified and traumatized by what Hamas did and wants it to never happen again. All the more so as a Jew with [an] Israeli family. But I am also horrified by the collective punishment already being meted out on Gazans, and the worse that is about to come.”

Over 2,000 researchers signed an open letter to eLife in defense of free expression. That 417 of the over 2,000 people signed the letter anonymously “afraid of retribution for expressing their opinions…speaks volumes” of the chilling effect, the letter says. If there was a spate of resignations after his first tweet, there was a similar trend once he was fired.

Soon after he clarified himself, eLife tweeted saying: “eLife condemns the atrocities committed by Hamas last week. We wish to highlight that, while the opinions of eLife staff and editorial board are their own, they are covered by our code of conduct. We take breaches of this seriously and investigate accordingly.”

While condemning Hamas, eLife’s tweet remained silent about the war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza. The tweet mentioned the code of conduct, though its statement did not. While eLife deleted the controversial tweet, its words and action convey a deeply disturbing message — one is allowed to condemn Hamas but not call out Israel war crimes. “Based on the comments on eLife’s tweet, that is how a lot of people are now interpreting the decision,” a senior researcher who did not sign the letter anonymously but wanted to remain unnamed here after receiving “critical feedback” post signing the letter and tweeting told The Hindu by email. The researcher had resigned from a senior position at the journal.

The statement said, “his approach to leadership, communication and social media has at key times been detrimental to the cohesion of the community we are trying to build and hence to eLife’s mission”. One is compelled to ask if the journal’s refusal to condemn Israel war crimes in the tweet not be “detrimental to the cohesion of the community”?

“The code of conduct clearly states that it only applies to social media posts that are related to or made on behalf of eLife. So, to me this would have been an open and shut case where the safety team would have decided Prof. Eisen’s tweet did not violate the code, as the code did not apply to his tweet from his personal account,” Dr. Devang Mehta, a researcher at KU Leuven university in Belgium, who was involved in shaping the code of conduct and one of the signatories of the open letter told The Hindu in an email.

Prof. Eisen told Science that he met with eLife’s board and was asked to resign “without much explanation other than that the tweet had caused problems for eLife”. Apparently, the decision to fire him was taken without consulting the ethics committee at the journal.

The firing of the editor is widely seen to have a chilling effect, particularly among young researchers and untenured academicians. “It is extremely chilling to see an academic being removed from an editorial position simply for tweeting an article that calls out the hypocrisy of narratives justifying attacks on Palestinians. This should be protected by free speech. It is important that academics are able to speak out against injustice, and use their right to free speech to do this, and not be victimised,” a senior academician who had signed the open letter to eLife without going anonymous but now wished to remain anonymous fearing reprisal told The Hindu by email. “As many academics are in far less privileged positions, and with the systemic racism and hierarchies that exists within academia, as it does in every other area, the victimisation of those in less privileged positions is likely to be even greater, and is likely to result in fewer and fewer junior and BIPOC academics able to speak up.”

“I think many early career scientists are rethinking how far their freedom of speech extends and this is hugely damaging to science and academia. It means fewer people will be vocal about reforming aspects of science that are in urgent need for reform, like science publishing, reproducibility or scientific integrity,” Dr. Mehta added. “The conclusion a lot of young scientists are drawing from this affair [is] that we can only express our personal opinions when they conform to those of our employers, governments, or the majority in the scientific community.”

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