Scientific Journal Dismisses Editor-in-Chief for Endorsing Onion Item on Gaza and Israel

Science reports:

Michael Eisen, editor-in-chief of the prominent open-access journal eLife and longtime critic of traditional journals, says he is losing that job for publicly endorsing a satirical article that criticized people dying in Gaza for not condemning the recent attacks on Israel by the Palestinian group Hamas.

“I have been informed that I am being replaced as the Editor in Chief of @eLife for retweeting a @TheOnion piece that calls out indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians,” Eisen posted on the social media platform X today. Multiple editors at eLife or advisers to the journal have already resigned to protest his dismissal.

eLife subsequently confirmed the firing in a statement, saying: “Mike has been given clear feedback from the board that 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. It is against this background that a further incidence of this behaviour has contributed to the board’s decision.” …

[A day after his original post but before the firing], [Eisen] posted, “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 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.… The Onion is not making light of the situation. And nor am I. These articles are using satire to make a deadly serious point about this horrific tragedy.”

It may well be that the removal also stems in part from friction between Eisen and others in the past (see this Nature article); but as I understand the quoted eLife statement and the credible-seeming press accounts surrounding it, his statements here were indeed the immediate cause of the dismissal.

I’m at a conference and can’t get into this in more detail, but if the facts are as reported, it seems to me that eLife behaved in a way that scientific institutions (including journals) ought not behave. I’m with the professor quoted below:

“The whole [academic] enterprise we’re engaged in rests on the ability to have open intellectual exchange about any topic and express our views honestly,” says Josh Dubnau, a neurobiologist at Stony Brook University and one of the [authors of a letter opposing Eisen’s removal]. “Nothing he said was repugnant or hateful. There shouldn’t be consequences for minority views in academia.” Dubnau went on to ask whether eLife would define acceptable positions on other controversial issues, such as abortion or the war in Ukraine.

Here’s the content of the Tweeted The Onion article:

Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas
GAZA CITY, GAZA—The complicity of each and every Palestinian in the violent actions of their militant ruling authority was reportedly on full display Friday morning when dying Gazans received justified criticism for not using their last words to condemn Hamas. For example, instead of issuing a full-throated denunciation of the violent attacks by Hamas that have left over 1,300 Israelis dead, one dying woman holding her 6-year-old son who had just been killed in a bombing is said to have doubled down by telling her child she loved him. According to reports, such barbarism on the part of Palestinians was on full display across the Gaza Strip, where many men of fighting age could not muster a single world of reproof for Hamas’ actions while they coughed up blood. In war-ravaged Gaza City, a dying reporter was heard blatantly begging for help instead of labeling Hamas a terrorist organization. At press time, the Israeli Defense Forces Twitter account underscored the massive surge of contempt they were contending with by posting a video that featured the shocking savagery of a Palestinian corpse that refused to condemn Hamas even when kicked.

As with satire generally, there are different possible interpretations here; but even if you think that academic journals should refuse to be associated with editors who express views that are genuinely extraordinarily vitriolic or vulgar or hostile, this just doesn’t qualify. This is one scientist, speaking as a citizen (not on behalf of a journal), expressing a view that is generally critical of the Israeli retaliation for the October 7 attacks, and suggesting that Palestinians are being excessively criticized for their failure to condemn the attacks. It’s bad for public discourse, and bad for science, if scientists have to face professional retaliation simply for expressing such political views on controversial political topics.

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