How Elsevier politicized the life sciences

You may have read elsewhere that publishing giant Reed Elsevier has been caught copying Mike Dunford's content without permission (and copyrighting it as their own!), which is extremely hypocritical from a company that opposes the open access movement and makes huge profits from restricting access to scientific data.

I''m not going to discuss the matter any further - others have already said plenty about it - but I thought that now would be an appropriate time to post this opinion piece I wrote back in March 2002. It was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly, the English-language edition of Egypt's oldest and best daily national newspaper.

The politics of genes

A research paper submitted to the journal Human Immunology in September last year has been withdrawn by the scientific publishing group Elsevier after a "cascade" of complaints and threats of resignation from members of the editorial board.

The research, carried out by a group led by Antonio Arnaiz-Villena at the Department of Immunology at the Complutense University in Madrid, examined the similarities in a group of immune system genes between Palestinians and Jews, and concluded that "Jews and Palestinians share a very similar HLA genetic pool that supports a common ancient Canaanite origin. Therefore, the origin of the long- lasting conflict between Jewish-Palestinian hostility is the fight for land in ancient times."

A historical introduction to the paper refers to Jews living in the Gaza strip as "colonists" and describes some Palestinians as living in "concentration camps." The journal Nature describes the paper as containing "controversial descriptions of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict."

Dolly Tyan, who was then president of the American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics (ASHI) has said that the research "purports to be a scientific treatise," but "offers opinion on geopolitical issues that cannot be substantiated by the data," adding that the ASHI was "offended and embarrassed by its inclusion in the journal." Having already gone to press, the paper was withdrawn at a later date. The Elsevier group quickly removed all electronic versions of the manuscript, and sent letters to librarians and subscribers urging them to ignore the paper, "or, preferably, to physically remove the relevant pages."

In the subsequent debate concerning the paper's withdrawal, the journal's editors have explained why the paper was withdrawn. Steven Marsh, one of the editors of Human Immunology, stated that the data, which indicated a close genetic relationship between Jews and Palestinians, was worthwhile reporting, and that "had the authors confined themselves to announcing their scientific results, it would have been an interesting paper."

Only two months later, though, in a letter to Nature, members of the editorial board stated that they "believe the paper should have been refused on the simple grounds that it lacked scientific merit" and that their "primary concern is that the authors might be perceived to have been discriminated against for political, as opposed to legitimate scientific, reasons"; furthermore, "the limitations [of the experimental methodology] are made evident by extraordinary observations that contradict history, geography and anthropology." This reference is to diagrams and trees that show the relatedness of the HLA genes in people from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the work carried out by someone - Arnaiz-Villena, the commissioning editor for the special anthropology issue of Human Immunology in which the paper concerned appeared - who is a recognised authority in the field.

The vast majority of published scientific papers contain inferences and conclusions that cannot be substantiated by the data being presented, and the inclusion of non- scientific material in a manuscript does not make the work unscientific. In many cases published work is often corrected, or even refuted, by the researchers themselves. Published work has not been withdrawn in the past; normally, erratum messages and letters of criticism are printed in future editions of the journal concerned. But this was not possible because of the "depth of anger" aroused by the paper, according to Nicole Sucio-Foca, the Columbia University-based editor-in-chief of Human Immunology.

Thus, according to the editors, the paper was withdrawn not for political reasons, but because it lacked scientific merit, although the aspect of the work that the editors are discrediting are not the ones which offended and embarrassed the editorial board.

Although the editors insist that the work was not withdrawn on political grounds, the withdrawal of the research is a political act, and unprecedented in scientific publishing. This is suppression of data that shows that Palestinians are human (and not the "cockroaches" or "two-legged beasts" they have been described as by Israeli prime ministers in the past) and not dissimilar to Jews. This revelation therefore reduces the credibility of the claim that Jews are God's chosen people, and that Israel is their homeland, an argument that uses biblical connotations to justify Israeli actions in the occupied territories.


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Fantastic that you have put this on after all these years!