Scientific journals have been under fire for a while now for their staunchly profit-oriented business models that are said to undermine both research and open data.
But the case detailed by Colin Wright, an evolutionary biologist, presents a different kind of criticism: namely, that journals are now caving to online outrage and dropping what would have otherwise been acceptable scientific papers.
1/ Online activists have successfully strong-armed a journal into retracting a published paper. This isn't how knowledge progresses.
This should be incredibly alarming to academics and anyone who supports free inquiry and rigorous scientific debate.
The paper in question was authored by Stephen Gliske, and deals with gender dysphoria.
In a series of tweets Wright explains how the process around the publishing of peer-reviewed papers should work, giving also an example of this – the way the PNAS journal handled a study into differences between female and male brains.
The topic might have been expected to be as controversial, and also result in pressure – but apparently, not as much as the topic of gender dysphoria. In the former case, the journal followed the proper steps in handling the situation.
As Wright says, if a reviewed paper is subsequently found to be lacking, then journals are supposed to link responses and critiques by other scientists that deal with the flaws of the original work – instead of retracting that paper altogether.
It's just too easy to whip up an online mob. Most journals likely don't realize how short the attention spans of these activists are. If they just (correctly) ignored the mob, the dust would settle quickly and the "controversy" would soon be largely forgotten.
But in Gliskes’s case that’s just what happened, and Wright argues that it means that a scientific journal has allowed what originated in an online activist mob to replace peer review, a path which he describes as “dark.”
Gender dysphoria, if you missed it, means there’s a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which they identify. The way this conflict is nowadays often resolved is through hormone therapy, feminizing or masculinizing a person, or “transitioning” surgery with the same goal. But what causes it remains unknown.
It seems that Gliske’s main “crime” was trying to theorize on this. He provides his own response to the situation in this article published on Medium.
In it, the scientist defends against the attacks on his theory, that’s trying to delve into the cause of gender dysphoria, by pointing out to the fact that so far – no theory regarding that cause has actually been proven true.