The Strange Procedures of Science Magazine’s Editor

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

The Strange Procedures of Science Magazine’s Editor

By B.Z.

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 2, March 1972, p. 16 — 17

AAAS attendees bought many copies of a little salmon colored pamphlet entitled CENSORED. The pamphlet describes the censoring of an article with the title, Science for the People, that four members of SESPA from N.Y. and Chicago had submitted for publication. The article is a modified and extended development of the ideas in the People’s Science article in Science for the People vol. III no. 1. The story of Philip Abelson’s heavy-handed censorship is reprinted below.

The following article was censored out of the pages of Science, not a few paragraphs or a blue-penciled phrase here and there, but the entire article. The journal’s editor, Philip Abelson, performed the surgery single-handed, against the advice of colleagues and in violation of precedent in effect for decades.

The censorship story begins at the 1970 meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Chicago. Science for the People activists distributed a mimeoed 10-page paper there which described the political and economic impact of scientific work in North America and tried to outline a program for integrating science and social change. In spite of the existence and free distribution of several thousand copies of this paper, the activist group at this AAAS meeting was criticized for not issuing a detailed and public statement of its analysis and objectives. These attacks not only ignored the paper, but also the bimonthly publication, Science for the People, and many other pamphlets, which were available throughout the meetings.

In any case, several of us decided to expand the original 10-page paper and to submit it to Science for publication. This was done in February, 1971, and shortly thereafter the new version was rejected and returned to us with criticisms rather unusual for a scientific journal. Disregarding editorial comments that questioned our integrity, our intelligence, even our sanity, we decided to drastically revise the paper in one final attempt to communicate with the massive readership of Science.

The final version of the paper, the one you are about to read, was sent to Science in June. (The following information concerning its fate within the Science bureaucracy was supplied to us by a staff member of the journal, along with copies of the referees’ reviews, which are available for examination by any interested party.) In accordance with the customary procedure, the article was submitted to three referees, chosen by the editor, Abelson. The referees unanimously advised Abelson in favor of publication. Many reasons were cited. Among them (excerpts):

[The article] is an important position in the debate over the objectives and public responsibilities of science which Science magazine has been encouraging for several years, with many major articles supporting the opposite points of view ….

If it is not published in Science, it would mean that Science is not representing the full spectrum of opinion in the scientific community, and would drive this whole segment of opinion to other media or “underground” …

…is interesting and well-written . . . . [It] is a statement that frankly takes sides; yet in an area in which other points of view are well represented, and most readers are likely to be meeting the attitudes presented here for the first time ….

…is extremely welcome and perhaps even overdue. It should be given top priority for publication. It represents a serious attempt to explain in detail the analysis and some of the proposed directions of this [Science for the People] movement. The readers I think will be somewhat surprised that the authors deal with real change and program rather than disruption and confrontation. The pages of Science have been used for discussion of the relation between science and politics in the past so there should be no hesitation with regard to the relevance of politics in the magazine ….

For some reason, Abelson felt that a 3-0 unequivocal decision for publication by the referees was not quite conclusive enough. So he took it upon himself to take the unusual (!) step of sending the article off to four more referees; all of whom, by the way, happened to be on the editorial board of the magazine. But Abelson’s disappointments were not yet over. Two of the four hand-picked extra referees broke ranks and advised in favor of publication. Their praise, however, was somewhat less encouraging than that of the original three referees. For example:

This is an idiotic paper which should be published. This position is taken by crackpot radicals who, unfortunately, make up a significant part of our students and junior faculty these days. These authors present the crackpot radical view of science conscientiously and effectively. I think it should be published as part of the documents of our era; because we are liberal and make room for all views ….

The two extra referees favoring rejection made the kind of — inspiring criticisms that many radicals have grown accustomed to:

Anything I say, and anything that anyone I regard as perceptive will say, is bound to be unsatisfactory to the authors, who, in regarding the inward voice and the inward vision, catch only pale and fleeting glimpses of what lies outside of themselves. I think you ‘II have to turn the paper down cold. Doctrinaire fanatics are not open to argument or conviction.

. . . is not a scholarly work nor a thoughtful exposition of ethics. It is rather low quality propaganda.

At this point our beleaguered editor, Abelson, faced a 5-2 decision in favor of publication. He apparently lost faith in the tactic of recruiting additional referees, and decided, in August, on a more reliable approach. Invoking his editorial (dictatorial) prerogative, he simply rejected the article.

We do not intend to allow the powerful within the scientific establishment to prevent us from communicating with our fellow scientific workers. Here then is our article, published in pamphlet form at a personal cost of several hundred dollars, some of which we hope to recover through your donations. In any case, we urge you to consider the meaning of freedom of speech when those whose ideas are threatening are denied access to the press and other means of communication. Those who insist upon being heard in spite of such denials are often the ones wrongly accused of violating that principle.

It has been our experience that speech cannot be free in an environment of exploitative profit and concentration of power. Freedom of speech, reasonable access to the avenues of communication, are limited. The limits are the rules of the established game, the set of prior assumptions one must accept in order to win the “freedom” to move around within the limits. One.of the rules is that political change must occur in an orderly fashion, orderly enough for the powerful to retain, or even extend, their power while appearing to relinquish a portion of it. Try and advocate the kind of political change that would really undermine the powerful — your liberal freedoms will dissappear into thin air and you will find yourself standing under an umbrella of ordinary repression.

The lesson of Vietnam has been learned by the functionaries and managers of the United States, by people like Philip Abelson: if you cannot effectively deal with an opponent through persuasion or compromise, use force. But there are other lessons of Vietnam.

The pamphlet CENSORED, which contains the above, and the 18 page article Science for the People written by Zimmerman, Radinsky, Rothenberg and Meyers is available at 25¢ each, or at reduced rates for quantity orders, from

Science for the People
9 Walden St.
Jamaica Plain, Mass. 02130
(617) 427-0642

 

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