Journals cave to pressure over 'potentially sexist' study

Two academic journals accepted, and then refused, a research paper on differences in intelligence between the sexes.

After outrage, Mathematical Intelligencer retracted its agreement to publish the study, authored by Georgia Institute of Technology professor Ted Hill and Pennsylvania State University professor Sergei Tabachnikov, reported Quillette. The New York Journal of Mathematics, a publication of the University at Albany in New York, published the study, but deleted it three days later, after receiving backlash.

[RELATED: STUDY: Conservative students feel pressure to self-censor]

Hill and Tabachnikov’s article, “An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis,” posited a theory that scientists could use to test the potential variability in IQ between the sexes. Several scientists, including Charles Darwin, have argued that male IQ varies more from the mean than does female IQ. In other words, males would be more likely to have lower and higher IQs, while females would be more likely to have IQs closer to the mean.

Having completed their study, the researchers aimed to publish their piece in Mathematical Intelligencer. 

“In principle,” Intelligencer editor-in-chief Marjorie Wikler Senechal told the two authors. “I am happy to stir up controversy and few topics generate more than this one. After the Middlebury fracas, in which none of the protestors had read the book they were protesting, we could make a real contribution here by insisting that all views be heard, and providing links to them.”

Tabachnikov published a preprint of the accepted article in August 2017, but a member of Penn State’s Women in Mathematics chapter allegedly told him that while she “support[s] people discussing controversial matters openly,” she was worried that some readers “will just see someone wielding the authority of mathematics to support a very controversial, and potentially sexist, set of ideas.”

[RELATED: VIDEO: The top 5 triggered campus liberals of 2017]

The researcher told Hill that he had “endless hours” worth of discussions with individuals who thought the study was “bad and harmful.” Hill, the paper’s lead author, “offered to address any concrete concerns” held by the Penn State’s Women in Mathematics chapter, but received no response.

On September 8, The National Science Foundation requested that the two researchers remove a note detailing their receipt of NSF funding from the study.

A FOIA request revealed that Penn State professors Diane Henderson and Nate Brown had written a letter to NSF earlier that day, telling the group that they were concerned that the paper “appears to promote pseudoscientific ideas that are detrimental to the advancement of women in science, and at odds with the values of the NSF.”

Also on September 8, Senechal also informed the authors that Intelligencer would no longer be publishing the piece, citing a “very real possibility that the right-wing media may pick this up and hype it internationally.”

“In my 40 years of publishing research papers I had never heard of the rejection of an already-accepted paper,” Hill wrote in Quillette.

New York Journal of Mathematics editor Igor Rivin reached out to Hill on October 13, offering to publish the professor’s article in his journal. The piece debuted on NYJM on November 6, but the journal took it down three days later.

Hill learned that NYJM editorial board member Benson Farb, who teaches math at the University of Chicago, had written the journal’s editor-in-chief, Mark Steinberger, calling Hill and Tabachnikov’s piece “pseudoscience,” “politically charged,” and “a piece of crap,” claiming that Rivin had “violat[ed] a scientific duty for purely political ends” by suggesting that NYJM publish it.

[RELATED: Vox: Liberal censorship - not conservative - is the real issue]

Steinberger told Hill that half of his editorial board had threatened to resign and “harass” NYJM “until it died” if he did not delete the article.

“A publication in a dead journal wouldn’t help you,” he told Hill.

NYJM editor Thomas Scanlon characterized the editorial board's decision to pull the article as one made upon examining its scientific quality, in a statement to Campus Reform. He said that he was one of the few editors who did not vote to invalidate the journal's acceptance of the article.

"Sadly for the NYJM, this episode has caused lasting harm," Scanlon said. "Benson Farb did resign from the editorial board and the requisite trust in the judgment of our fellow editors has been eroded.  Even more sadly, while it was not directly related to these events, the long time editor-in-chief, Mark Steinberger, has been stricken with brain cancer and incapacitated. He built the NYJM from the ground up and had handled both the scientific matters usually considered by editors and also the nitty-gritty technical copy editing and production side of the operation."

Scanlon stressed the "strenuous efforts" Steinberger made to treat both his editorial colleagues and Hill fairly throughout the publication process.

National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood told Campus Reform that his group extended an offer to publish Hill and Tabachnikov’s article.

“We have a sense that part of our mission is to further legitimate academic debate,” Wood said. “And when we find circumstances in which what looks to us to be a respectable peer-reviewed opinion has been shut down because of animus against either the idea or the author, we ought to do our best to provide a platform for such a person.”

“I rather like the irony that our journal is published by Springer, which is one of the publishing outfits that has succumbed to the pressure to unpublish Hill’s original work,” the NAS president told Campus Reform. “I find myself and my organization quite often in conflict with Springer over things, but we have held our ground.”

Senechal, several New York Journal of Mathematics editors, and Wood did not return a request for comment in time for press.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @ShimshockAndAwe