Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.

PLOS BLOGS The Official PLOS Blog

Nature knows no indecencies

There is a wonderful editorial in Nature this week which I have to share with you (it is closed access but there is an accessible copy here). Apparently Nature has been getting complaints about the fact that they continue to print verbatim their 1869 mission statement which talks about “scientific men”. Obviously this is causing female scientists to conclude that they can’t submit work to Nature and giving them a feeling of guilt if they read its content which is so clearly not meant for them.

The solution to the problem? Simple, add “[sic]” after the offending gender specific collective noun. “a Latin word meaning ‘thus’, after the phrase — in effect expressing the sentiment ‘alas, dear reader, this is what was said'” to quote the editorial. The mission statement printed in the journal now reads

“…Secondly, to aid scientific men[sic] themselves, by giving early information of all advances made….”

There is no question that sexism should have no place in science, and anyone doubting Nature’s credentials here could do a quick head count of their editorial staff, which contains at least as many women as men. So what has this actually achieved?

Suzanne Franks, over at Thus Spake Zuska, thinks this is a near pointless alteration, but it seems to me that Nature has uncovered a whole new function for [sic]. I had always thought it was a disclaimer when quoting text letting me indicate that I know there is an error in the text but that I am quoting verbatim. Basically [sic] says “I didn’t make a mistake, the error is in the original”. Now it seems we can use it to indicate that we disagree with the original wording and are sure that the author would too if they were around to ask.

This is going to be so useful. I can see it now. Jane Austen:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man[sic] in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife[sic].”

or Neil Armstrong

“That’s one small step for man[sic]; one giant leap for mankind”

Best of all there is Mark Twain (as suggested by my colleague Rebecca):

“Nature knows no indecencies; man[sic] invents them”

Any more?

  1. I can’t tell if you’re intentionally being funny here or genuinely disingenuous, or perhaps couching your disingenuousness in humor; it’s so difficult to tell on the internet.

    Nature’s word is “men”, which is a gender specific word. All your uses are of the word “man”, which, especially in those cases, are gender neutral and refer to any member of Homo sapiens.

  2. I suspected, but it’s so hard to tell on the internet. My first rule of the internet: always assume the other person is being a jerk.

    Myself included, I guess. 🙂

  3. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, “man” meant “A human being (irrespective of sex or age)” until the 20th century. So Nature’s 1869 mission statement said exactly what they now want to say; it’s the language’s fault.

    Unfortunately I may not reproduce a quote of the “Etymology” section of their entry on “man”. You’ll have to look it up yourself.

    See also their entries on ‘were’ (or ‘wer’, male human), ‘wife’ (or ‘wif’, female human), ‘woman’ (female human) and ‘wapman'(or ‘wepman’, male human).

    I’m sure that the good wepmen and wifmen at Nature were understood.

  4. Chris, perhaps your memory is at fault, because I am sure you remember that we updated our mission statement while you were still on staff, some years ago, and that it is free access on the “about the journal” page here:
    Nature’s mission statement
    First, to serve scientists through prompt publication of significant advances in any branch of science, and to provide a forum for the reporting and discussion of news and issues concerning science. Second, to ensure that the results of science are rapidly disseminated to the public throughout the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance for knowledge, culture and daily life.

    What has been corrected is the “original” mission statement.

    You also missed that the editorial is not closed access but is open at

    best wishes

  5. Hi Maxine,

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I certainly remember that Nature has a revamped mission statement and I tried to make clear that I was talking about the 1869 statement printed in the journal on the Table of Contents page. That was what the editorial was about after all and it too doesn’t mention the new mission statement so perhaps I could be forgiven if it slipped my mind. A couple of Nautilus readers seem to have been confused by that omission.

    Also I’m pleased that the editorial is freely available somewhere. I have to say though that it is far less obvious to look on Nautilus than to look on the journals home page. In fact I would think that you really should make the version linked to from the journal Table of Contents freely available as well. Charging non-subscribers $30 to follow that link while making the editorial free elsewhere seems a little inconsistent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your ORCID here. (e.g. 0000-0002-7299-680X)

Back to top