Academia Down The Memory Hole

     George Orwell introduced us to the concept of the “Memory Hole”, where inconvenient documents and records are disappeared as if they never existed. In the novel 1984, this memory hole was a literal hole that lead to an incinerator that destroyed the physical documentation. This book was meant to be a warning, not a how-to-guide.

     However, physical documentation that is widely distributed can be difficult, particularly with peer-reviewed journals whose printed issues are distributed to a myriad of university libraries. This isn’t a problem with digital information, such as with early publishing of papers online or with online only journals.

     Such is the an article concerning the “Greater Male Variability Hyposthesis” by Georgia Tech Mathematics Professor Ted Hill. Prof. Hill. For the inconvenient presentation of evidence that biological males tend to show greater variability than biological females (for both humans and other animals), the journal Mathematic Intelligencer, who had initially decided to publish the paper, ended up rejecting it after the journal was harassed by people calling it “bad and harmful” with the National Science Foundation demanded to not be attributed for the funding. In and of itself, this is despicable, but hardly unprecedented, with plenty of examples of innocuous studies and papers being attacked and their authors silenced for daring to try to put their wrongthink into print. However, it get far, far worse.

     After the post-acceptance rejection, the paper was accepted and published by the New York Journal of Mathematics, and online journal. However, the digital memory hole awaited, as the Professor describes:

“On October 13, a lifeline appeared. Igor Rivin, an editor at the widely respected online research journal, the New York Journal of Mathematics, got in touch with me. He had learned about the article from my erstwhile co-author, read the archived version, and asked me if I’d like to submit a newly revised draft for publication. Rivin said that Mark Steinberger, the NYJM’s editor-in-chief, was also very positive and that they were confident the paper could be refereed fairly quickly. I duly submitted a new draft (this time as the sole author) and, after a very positive referee’s report and a handful of supervised revisions, Steinberger wrote to confirm publication on November 6, 2017. Relieved that the ordeal was finally over, I forwarded the link to interested colleagues.

“Three days later, however, the paper had vanished. And a few days after that, a completely different paper by different authors appeared at exactly the same page of the same volume (NYJM Volume 23, p 1641+) where mine had once been. As it turned out, Amie Wilkinson is married to Benson Farb, a member of the NYJM editorial board. Upon discovering that the journal had published my paper, Professor Farb had written a furious email to Steinberger demanding that it be deleted at once. ‘Rivin,’ he complained, ‘is well-known as a person with extremist views who likes to pick fights with people via inflammatory statements.’ Farb’s ‘father-in law…a famous statistician,’ he went on, had ‘already poked many holes in the ridiculous paper.’ My paper was ‘politically charged’ and ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘a piece of crap’ and, by encouraging the NYJM to accept it, Rivin had ‘violat[ed] a scientific duty for purely political ends.’

“Unaware of any of this, I wrote to Steinberger on November 14, to find out what had happened. I pointed out that if the deletion were permanent, it would leave me in an impossible position. I would not be able to republish anywhere else because I would be unable to sign a copyright form declaring that it had not already been published elsewhere. Steinberger replied later that day. Half his board, he explained unhappily, had told him that unless he pulled the article, they would all resign and “harass the journal” he had founded 25 years earlier ‘until it died.’ Faced with the loss of his own scientific legacy, he had capitulated. ‘A publication in a dead journal,’ he offered, ‘wouldn’t help you.'”

     Even if a paper is later retracted in a paper journal, it still exists in that printed form. Now, the difficulty of sending things down the memory hole have become as easy as replacing a web page or two. This isn’t even limited to academic journals, but more so to streaming services and books or other information “purchased” via app stores where you have only purchased the “right” to hear/read something only for as long as the company that “sold” it to you decides to allow you to.

     Not even web page archival services can be fully trusted to show an actual snapshot of a web page on a given date. This is why it is so important to have physical copies or at least electronic copies free from copyright protection that you have a private copy of.

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One Response to Academia Down The Memory Hole

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