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an Editorial this week entitled “Men [sic]” (Nature 448, 728; 2007), Nature opines that its 1869 mission statement is out of date.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By the middle of the nineteenth century, this last phrase was already out of date: pioneering women such as Mary Fairfax Somerville and Caroline Herschel were proving their worth as astronomers, mathematicians, botanists and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.