The Full Text of My Letter to Nature Magazine

Nature published an excerpt of my letter below within their Correspondence section; the text that they actually published was a 300-word extract from the full letter below.  I worked with them on the shortened version, and they were very receptive to my insistence that each word of it be chosen by me.  Below is the full letter, for your interest.

Dear Editor-in-Chief Philip Campbell,

I wanted to presume upon your attention in order to explain more fully why I chose to decline the interview that I had agreed to do for Nature-Jobs.  In one way it was an easy decision, mostly because I am secure in my assumption that every submission to Nature is treated fairly.  The selection process is indeed severe, and has mostly resulted in my rejection, but I am confident in the overall scientific integrity of the process.  Such extreme selectivity doesn’t uniformly result in a perfect and complete inclusion of the very best, but within every issue of Nature are scientific articles that are well worth reading, thinking and talking about.  This is my opinion based on more than twenty-five years of reading and citing your journal.

My declination was a strategic decision and I am concerned that you should not interpret it as a simple effort to silence your Correspondence section.  I admit that I was motivated by personal inclination, but I maintain that it is a valid inclination based on long and meaningful experience.  The journal Nature is a powerful institution; many have argued that it is the most powerful literary institution within the entire discipline of science.  Every scientist has paused over a Nature article at some point in her/his career, often to the effect of challenging or even changing opinions and beliefs about how the world works.  Every student starts each experiment harboring the faint hope that if all goes well enough, the result might merit submission to Nature.  Every early-career scientist is told that acceptance within Nature is a valuable prize and a harbinger of glory, laud and honor and job-security.  Thus the assignment of a Nature doi is a powerful force of reification, one that endures far beyond the squabbling that may precede or follow it.  Nature is an institution in which its editors, reviewers, authors and readers have invested a monument of effort and care.  For this very reason it is also an institution that merits exceptional scrutiny.

Nature has stated many, many times that the correspondence it publishes does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors.  This is a standard disclaimer within any news-type publication and Nature is correct to expect its readers to be familiar with such policy.  However, it is well worth examining why this disclaimer requires so much repetition, both within the publication and within conversation (e.g., recently on Twitter)There seems to be a deep-seated tendency to associate the Nature masthead with the Nature selection process.  Emphasizing to the readership that this association is not good practice with conspicuous adamancy right after readers react strongly to what’s been printed will engender predictable cynicism towards what may be interpreted as a lack of editorial responsibility.  A simpler solution might be to remove the Nature masthead from the Correspondence, but then – it wouldn’t be Nature any more, would it?  Exactly why did Nature want its readers to read Koube’s letter?  As a reader, I would very much like an answer.  A meaningful answer probably requires a vigorous and protracted conversation within Nature exploring the very purpose that the Correspondence section is meant to serve within an age where Koube’s letter already has multiple outlets for mass distribution.

This brings me to my larger reason for declining the interview.  I don’t have the authority to set up a time, date and venue for the above “vigorous and protracted conversation” that I wish to see happen.  I made my decision hoping that my declination might serve as a concrete catalyst for an authority figure within Nature to call for such a discussion.  I rationally judged that the possibility of this discussion is of greater benefit to my field, when compared to an article about me as an individual.  One last clarifying point: on my blog I wrote, “Nobody [at Nature] gives a <bleep> about my hurt little feelings.”  I do believe that Nature the institution does not give a <bleep>.  But I believe that individuals within the institution perhaps do.  I feel deeply that we, as people, are always better than the institutions that we create, and that perhaps this is the tragedy of our age.  I also know that the very fact that we can create institutions implies that we also have the power to change them.

Sincerely,

A. Hope Jahren, Professor of Geobiology, University of Hawaii

Post-script: Nature and its editors are welcome to reproduce or distribute the unedited text of this letter as it sees fit, including with the Correspondence section of the journal.

Still wondering what this is all about?  You can read the whole story of Lukas’s original dumbass letter on @rocza ‘s blog.  Oh, and here’s what I wrote on the morning that I declined the interview.  It’s a lot less measured and profesh … and funnier too.