Dear Nature, You got a sexist story, but when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist too.

A post by Anne JeffersonDear Nature,

“Womanspace” by Ed Rybicki is the most appalling thing I have ever read in a scientific journal. When I read the Futures (science fiction) piece you published on 29 September 2011, about how the hero and a man friend were unable to cope with a simple errand and how that led them to discover the existence of parallel universe inhabited by women that naturally endowed women with their domestic prowess, but which women were too dumb to observe until the great men of science made their discovery, I checked to make make sure I was still on To my dismay, I was.

The story hearkens back to the “good old” sexist days when men did important things (like write books about virology) and women did unimportant things (like keep their families fed and clothed); when men couldn’t be bothered to be useful around the house and even when women did manage to get science degrees they were better employed as cooks and errand runners. The writer makes the explicit assumption that all of his (and, thus Nature’s) readers are male and have a “significant female other” who helps with their shopping. The story uses a cliched trope that women have an alternate reality, but then adds the extra punch that we aren’t even smart or observant enough to know it. As a woman scientist reading this article, it seems in every way designed to make me feel othered and excluded from the scientific academy.

It’s one thing to write a not-very-funny witty story full of sexism and gender stereotypes, but it’s a completely different thing to publish it with the stamp of approval of one of the world’s leading scientific publications. Maybe the writer is really privileged and clueless enough not to have intended this as an effort to put women in their place, but it’s not plausible that the Nature editorial staff were blind to the way this piece would be perceived. Besides, the evidence suggests that both the writer and Nature’s Futures editor were fully aware that they were courting controversy and perhaps were even doing so intentionally. When the piece was published, the author tweeted “I WILL catch flak for this” and four days later Henry Gee (who claims to be the editor of this section) commented: “I’m amazed we haven’t had any outraged comments about this story.” The outrage did come, and the majority of comments posted on Nature’s website have been highly critical. This week, Nature published two of the comments as correspondence in their current issue, which is how this story caught my attention. I don’t want to read fiction in my scientific journals, but I do pay attention to letters with titles of “Women: Sexist fiction is alienating” and “Women: Latent bias harms careers.

So far I have seen no other response from Nature Publishing Group, on what in my opinion is an atrocious decision to give a broader platform to the author’s sexist views. The Careers section of Nature routinely has articles about the challenges faced by women scientists, maybe now they can write an expose on their own organization? Better yet, Nature should print an apology for the piece and seriously review their practice of approving Futures articles for publication.


Anne Jefferson
University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Categories: academic life, by Anne, publication, ranting, society

Comments (23)

  1. Lab Lemming says:

    How can you not read the fiction section of “Nature”? Isn’t that the part in between the front cover and the back cover?

  2. Gareth says:

    Well said. I agree completely.

  3. Jessica Ball says:

    Just seeing that Nature was publishing science fiction in the first place made me pause. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with their mission statement:
    Aims and scope
    Nature is a weekly international journal publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology on the basis of its originality, importance, interdisciplinary interest, timeliness, accessibility, elegance and surprising conclusions. Nature also provides rapid, authoritative, insightful and arresting news and interpretation of topical and coming trends affecting science, scientists and the wider public.

    While I enjoy reading some science fiction, it doesn’t have a place in a journal that’s supposed to be talking about scientific topics. Also, the article in question was neither insightful nor authoritative (maybe arresting, but only in a “spit your coffee” sort of way).

    Thanks for the great response (and for posting it in the article comments)!

  4. Isotopic says:

    I’ll agree that it sounds awful and probably shouldn’t have been published, but IMO I think you’re a bit off the mark with the “stamp of approval”. First of all, these are fiction pieces published at the end of a scientific journal, and I strongly suspect that the bar to publication is much lower than scientific articles and letters that are normally regarded as “prestigious”. Second, although I rarely read these (for this very reason), I’ve never read one that I thought was enjoyable to read or particularly thought provoking. Nature is not a journal of literature.

    More generally, I personally don’t think that publication in a high profile journal conveys a “stamp of approval” (at least, in any meaningful way) on anything. I’m able to think critically on my own – and I think this is probably true for most of their readers – and only expect them to weed out the pedestrian or the over-long.

    • Silver Fox says:

      Their bar for publication should be higher.

      • Isotopic says:

        Maybe, though they might struggle to get pieces to publish (I’m assuming we are talking about the overall quality; the piece in question probably shouldn’t have been published, at any “bar height”). I’d be happy if they took the section out and replaced it with something I might read, and I can’t imagine I’m in a significant minority here.

    • F says:

      Publishing the piece is not a stamp of approval? Exactly because Nature is not in the business of publishing mostly fiction, it is even more a stamp of approval that it would be if published in a journal which accepts mostly fiction, and a lot of it, for publishing.

      But yeah, they could ditch the fiction section entirely; no loss.

  5. Derek Houston says:

    I totally agree with you, Anne. The piece sucked on many different levels. Ed and Henry seemed to have been deliberately producing and publishing something to get attention. How pathetic!

  6. Chris Rowan says:

    @Isotopic: Publishing such an offensive article displays poor editorial judgement. The person responsible is a senior editor who also makes decisions about accepting the more ‘prestigious’ scientific manuscripts. Furthermore, Nature is basically defined by – and boasts about – its strong editorial filter. I don’t think you can draw the line you’re trying to draw.

    Besides, if you choose to include something a journal you pay to print and then sell, that is a clear signal that you think that it has some intrinsic merit.

    • Isotopic says:

      Do you genuinely think that the editorial board (?tries to?) keep the literature at the same quality as the science? I doubt it, but I’m afraid I don’t have any data to support it, so perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree. I have a hard time believing that Nature attacts the creme de la creme of fiction writers – and therefore the best literature – wheras the science is often interesting and/or novel, and sometimes very good. I think it’s perfectly fair to “draw a line”: the so-called prestige of a journal like this is drawn from the science, not from the news reporting, the podcasts, the cover images, the editorials, or (last and probably least) the fiction.

      I agree that it displays poor editorial judgement – in a sense. However, I probably wouldn’t lump together the editorial skill that would exclude this type of rubbish (especially when the “quality” bar is already low, and regardless of whether you think it should be higher, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that the quality of writing in that section is poor), from the editorial skill that is required to sift through scientific manuscripts to find the most novel and interesting papers. However, not being an editor myself I would probably not heavily weight my opinion. Anyways, my understanding is that the editorial “filter” works differently for science papers – it’s not just one editor as a gatekeeper.

      • Chris Rowan says:

        This is nothing to do with quality. It’s to do with enabling clueless sexism. In a journal that is one of the major channels between the research community and the media. Sure, it’s not one of the more prominent sections of Nature; but I’m fairly sure that newspapers don’t get excused from libel by arguing ‘well, we didn’t print lies about you on the front page!’

        For better or worse, Nature does not make its decisions to publish articles on the basis of scientific merit alone. The editors place great emphasis on questions like: is it relevant? Is it timely? Is it of interest to a broad audience (including those outside of the research community)? The fact that someone who is making such judgements either did not see a problem here, or did not care, erodes confidence in the quality of said judgements.

      • Ellen McManis says:

        It’s true, the editorial review board probably doesn’t have a high bar for literature — but they should at least publish literature which displays a more-than-tenuous grasp of science and present reality. They probably wouldn’t publish stories of a future-universe in which everyone has all of their ailments fixed with homeopathic remedies that were finally vindicated in 2023. Neither should they have published this.

  7. Kate Clancy says:

    Very well said, Anne. I think your characterization of such blatant sexism as alienating is spot on.

    Also, Chris said: “This is nothing to do with quality. It’s to do with enabling clueless sexism.”


  8. Isotopic says:

    Sure, I more-or-less agree. I was simply trying to make the much narrower point that one should be careful not to attach the imprimatur (for whatever it is worth) of Nature to everything it touches. In a rough sense.

    I also agree that it doesn’t speak well of whomever edited it.

  9. Gabriel M. Garay says:

    Have you read Paul Anderson’s answer ( Lemme transcribe part of it:

    “Finally Mr Gee, since Nature seems not to be discriminating about what fiction it publishes, I have three stories of my own you might wish to consider publishing in future issues of Nature:

    -Gayspace (a hilarious tale of how gay people access parallel dimensions to look fabulous)
    -Blackspace (a hilarious tale of how black people access parallel dimensions to be fast sprinters)
    -Jewspace (a hilarious tale of how Jewish people access parallel dimensions to save money)

    Or maybe you’d have the sense not to publish these. Because they are offensive, and based on stereotypes. And you’d be right.

    It is a pity that you and the other editors of Nature seem incapable of demonstrating that same level of decency towards half the global population.”

    Great answer.

  10. parclair says:

    Re Paul Anderson’s comment about advertisers, here’s the link to the advertisers for Nature:

    So, these are the folks to tell about your displeasure. Threaten boycotts. As an old campaigner, advertisers have a lot more pull than letters to the editor.

    I’ll understand if you don’t allow this comment to be published; you’ve a career ahead of you, and I’ve always picked my battles carefully. Love your letter, by the way…..

  11. Lab Lemming says:

    As someone who has purchased ads in Nature, I’d like to point out that the advertising revenue is insignificant compared to the library subscription fees. A year ago, when I actually had time to think, I was looking at whether buying adspace in a variety of journals and receiving complimentary copies would actually be cheaper than subscribing. It isn’t for nature- it is published too often, but some of the expensive monthlies you’d need to work it out carefully…

  12. Lab Lemming says:

    By the way, wouldn’t a more proactive approach be to blog about all the awesome science published in Nature by women scientists?

  13. F says:

    Thank you, Anne Jefferson. Nature needed to be taken to school, and you’ve done a fine job.

    For those of you who are a bit on the fence with respect to Nature‘s culpability in printing the story, have a look at how Nature is reacting to the backlash. Want links? See paragraphs 9 and 10 here:

  14. Malcolm says:

    An obvious, immature attempt to draw traffic to the publication. I’m still trying to grasp what they were thinking, as the type of people who you’d want to frequent Nature are those who can see right through this drivel.

    If Nature is trying to bridge the gap between the generally science illiterate public and popular scientific research, you’d think the editors could come up with something that isn’t bigoted in order to garner attention. This crap isn’t any better than a typical shock jock radio announcer with an axe to grind and no evidence to support his lunacy.

  15. Let’s make a difference! Petition on Nature Womanspace article by Ed Rybicki, NPG editor Henry Gee:

  16. Passerby says:

    I was a panel reviewer for Nature during their last content / layout revision cycle (2009-2010);. After reading several poorly written, pointless fiction pieces, I urged them to avoid the back-page fiction altogether and return to the invited comment/opinion closing section employed in previous journal formats.

    IMHO, well-crafted science beats science fiction reading hands-down these days.

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