Raise racist scientific history in science papers (opinion)

Academics and institutions have increasingly been discussing the racist histories of their disciplines in blog posts and press releases since the uprising for Black lives in summer 2020. I welcome these acknowledgments, often spurred by student and community organizing, but I argue that these discussions must be central to our work and therefore should appear in the main products of research—namely, in papers.

Unfortunately, as I recently learned, even footnoting these racist histories in an academic journal can be a nonstarter. In mid-December, the peer-review process at a respected physics society journal was wrapping up for a paper that I had co-authored. The paper builds off an equation originally proposed by three Soviet scientists (Andrey Kolmogorov, Ivan Georgievich Petrovsky and Nikolai Piskunov) and separately by Ronald Fisher, a British statistician.

As noted on his Wikipedia page, Fisher has been described as “a genius who almost single-handedly created the foundations for modern statistical science” and as “the single most important figure in 20th century statistics.” He was also a eugenicist, and he explicitly developed his research program to support the project of eugenics. The equation that we worked with was originally published with the title “The wave of advance of advantageous genes” in the Annals of Eugenics, which he edited from 1934 to 1954.

The equation is quite general, and we used it to model an abstracted chemical process. Still, I struggled with how to handle its provenance; while a citation was clearly appropriate, I did not want to endorse Fisher’s ideology, so closely tied to his work. Ultimately, I chose to refer to the equation as the KPP equation, and added a footnote: “We choose not to further promote Ronald Fisher’s name due to the racist, ableist, and otherwise supremacist and discriminatory views that he championed in his life and work. He published this equation in the journal Annals of Eugenics (now Annals of Human Genetics). We acknowledge that apart from this equation, many of the tools that we use in this paper—even concepts as common as the standard deviation—were developed by Fisher and colleagues of his with similar views, such as Karl Pearson, with the aim of advancing their ideologies.” The footnote also directed readers to several popular and scholarly sources where they could read further discussions of this topic.

The three anonymous reviewers made no mention of the footnote, and our paper was accepted with minor revisions, but a few weeks later I received an email from the managing editor of the journal saying that they were removing the footnote, on the grounds that it “does not belong in a paper since it is a personal statement, not a scientific result.”

First, let’s consider the distinction made here between the scientific and personal. Any scientific result is the product of a person or group deciding to invest time, money and intellectual resources in a particular research direction. Our whole paper is already a personal statement that its topic is worth investigating and the result worth sharing. Fisher’s work in eugenics, to which he devoted his life, is a case in point. The collective implications of these choices are significant: consider, for instance, the vast disparities between the volume of research on women’s versus men’s health. More generally, decades of research, from groundbreaking science studies scholar Donna Haraway, among others, have argued that the identity, values and milieu of a scientist shape what they see in the world—and what they publish in their papers. In order for the reader to effectively assess the limitations and implications of a scientific result, they need to understand that milieu. A footnote seemed like a perfectly appropriate way to include relevant contextual information about the background of our scientific approach. Clearly, our editor did not agree.

I wonder if they thought through the implications of their decision. Ronald Fisher is dead, but the hierarchies of race, class and ability that he championed live on in the world and in our scientific communities. What does it mean for a professional society to say it is “committed to the inclusion of underrepresented minorities” when research articles in its journals can’t mention that many of the statistical tools that its members use every day were developed to support a racist scientific project by someone with overtly racist views?

I am an able-bodied white woman of European descent. I was upset that the journal removed the footnote because, in the absence of an explicit statement to the contrary, my paper implicitly endorses the uncontextualized citation of Fisher’s ideas. I’ll survive. But the pre-eminence of the “scientific” over the “personal” sends a clear message to underrepresented minorities (and overrepresented majorities) in the field: ableism, classism and white supremacy don’t matter if the science is right.

To their credit, the editor conceded that “this kind of information can be valuable in creating awareness and recognition of a historical context,” but they nonetheless maintained that “a scientific research paper is not the right place for this.” Presumably, the right place is a forum like this one, or perhaps a diversity, equity and inclusion seminar. That is all very well for people like you and me, who read academia-adjacent blogs and websites; attend diversity, equity and inclusion seminars; and may have a deeper intellectual and political commitment that leads us to read scholarship on the history of science where these discussions have long been held. But what about for the people who don’t, or perhaps would rather not, engage with these other sources of information and perspectives? I believe it behooves us as a scientific community to foreground the historical role of science in maintaining and—as in Fisher’s case—reifying oppressive systems. That means putting the information where the scientists are: in conference talks, in classes and in papers.

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