Women (and men) of science

In an Editorial this week entitled “Men [sic]” (Nature 448, 728; 2007), Nature opines that its 1869 mission statement is out of date. From the Editorial:

It was 1833 when the English polymath William Whewell first coined the word ‘scientist’. Over subsequent decades, the word gradually replaced such commonly used terms as ‘natural philosophers’ and ‘men of science’.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, this last phrase was already out of date: pioneering women such as Mary Fairfax Somerville and Caroline Herschel were proving their worth as astronomers, mathematicians, botanists and palaeontologists.

The original mission statement of this journal, first printed in Nature‘s second issue on 11 November 1869, was therefore running behind the times when it referred to “Scientific men” — even though, to be fair, the word ’scientist’ did not enter general circulation until the end of the nineteenth century. In other respects it is well worded — which is why we print it every week in the Table of Contents.

The statement expresses two purposes for this publication. The first is “to place before the general public the grand results of Scientific Work and Scientific Discovery ; and to urge the claims of Science to a more general recognition in Education and in Daily Life”. Today this is as important as it has ever been — although members of the public have important considerations to lay before scientists, and Nature reflects them also.

The second thrust was expressed as follows: “to aid Scientific men themselves, by giving early information of all advances made in any branch of Natural knowledge throughout the world, and by affording them an opportunity of discussing the various Scientific questions which arise from time to time.”

In printing the statement verbatim every week as we have done, making it clear when it originated, we have hitherto assumed that readers will excuse the wording in the interests of historical integrity. But feedback from readers of both sexes indicates that the phrase, even when cited as a product of its time, causes displeasure. Such signals have been occasional but persistent, and a response is required.

There is a convention within the English language by which writers quoting text can indicate their view that a particular phrase is inappropriate. That is to insert sic, a Latin word meaning ‘thus’, after the phrase — in effect expressing the sentiment ‘alas, dear reader, this is what was said’.

This is what we will do in the mission statement from now on. The small, belated change takes place against the vast backdrop of a scientific world where the upper echelons of academia, academies and prestigious awards are still numerically greatly dominated by men, and where outright discrimination can still rear its ugly head (see page 749). In this context, the insertion of a Latin word in a couple of paragraphs may be a tiny step: but it is at least one in the right direction.

(The modern version of Nature’s mission statement can be read here.)


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    Bill said:

    This decision puzzles me. Why not simply change the wording (s/‘Scientific men’/scientists) and say “we’ve updated the statement to better reflect our modern aims”?

    Mission statements that date to 1869 are pretty damn cool, I’ll grant you — but it seems that here tradition is trumping concerns (which NPG obviously shares!) about inclusive language. Why take a “tiny step… in the right direction” when the whole step is so easy to take instead?

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    Maxine said:

    Thanks, Bill. We did update our mission statement years ago, and I’ve added a link to the newer version (on the “about the journal” page in my post above, in light of your comment.

    What the Editorial said was that the “original” mission statement would contain this correction, on any future occasions where we reprint it. It did not mean to imply that we had not updated our mission statement since 1869.

    All best and thanks again for your comment.


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    Maxine said:

    As it is so short, here is the current Nature mission statement:

    First, to serve scientists through prompt publication of significant advances in any branch of science, and to provide a forum for the reporting and discussion of news and issues concerning science. Second, to ensure that the results of science are rapidly disseminated to the public throughout the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance for knowledge, culture and daily life.

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    Zuska said:

    If this is what Nature means then the editorial is exceedingly unclear. If there is a new mission statement then there would seem to be no need for something like the [sic] in the old mission statement – the old one should simply not be in use anymore. Why would it still be printed anywhere, necessitating the [sic], except as a historical document, in which case an explanation should be given that this is a historical document and not a current mission statement, and the historical document was sexist? (Along with providing the current mission statement – which certainly was not done in the editorial.)

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    Maxine said:

    We like to reprint our original 1869 mission statement sometimes, as a historical document, but it does sometimes offend people by its contemporary wording when we do. On the “about the journal” page whose URL I give above, you can see the current mission statement, and also link through to a facsimile of the original statement. We think that some readers, at least, might be interested to see the two together, and to compare them.

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    Steven Riley said:

    This seems to be the right forum for a minor issue that has been bothering me. I have two young daughters and I authored a piece of correspondence in Nature a few weeks ago.

    Can you change the standard format for the addressee of each piece of correspondence to be “Sir / Madam”? Or can you use original wording of each correspondent? If the use of “Sir” is to reflect the current male Editor-in-Chief, then you should use his name explicitly. If the use of one word rather than two is important to save space, please use “Madam” for the next 100 years.

    Many would consider the post of Editor-in-Chief at Nature to be one of the most prestigious appointments in scientific research. It is certainly one of the most powerful. I respectfully suggest that it should not be branded implicitly as male, especially as the words are attributed to your correspondents.

    Maxine adds: “Sir” is used because the current Editor of Nature is a man, and the Correspondence page is for “letters to the Editor”.

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    Torben said:

    Today’s Correspondence by Sanya Samac is off the mark. It’s a historic document, not an endorsement of times past. Such revisionism bodes ill, especially in the circles of “supposed bastion of enlightenment and intellectual progress.” What ever happened to historical accuracy, to the honest acknowledgment of previous errors? They changed the present mission statement for crying out loud.

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    Adam said:

    While we’re busy changing one historical document, let’s also take a quill pen and ink to the Declaration of Independence, and ammend the phrase “All men are created equal”.

    And we can do a little digital sound editing of Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for Man”, and insert “and Woman.”

    And we can get rid of the “N-word” in Huck Finn. Perhaps replace it with the term “Persons of Color”?

    Or perhaps we should accept the fact that historical documnets don’t always reflect our current values.

    We learn as we grow, but we shouldn’t erase our past mistakes.

    (Scientists should know that one doesn’t White-Out incorrect notebook data)

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    Joseph Ross said:

    I wish to address the definition of “sic” that was printed in the editorial “Men ‘sic’”. This article claimed that “sic” is used to “indicate that a particular phrase is inappropriate” and also refers to “sic” as a Latin word. “Sic” is an abbreviation of the Latin word “sicut”, meaning “just as”, and indicates that a quoted phrase has been reproduced exactly as (just as) written and that the quote contains a mistake, but not necessarily an inappropriate one.

    A frequent use of “sic” is to make especially clear that a spelling error was present in the original quotation and was not made by the author during the process of reproducing the quote.

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