Scenes of war such as those coming out of Gaza naturally arouse emotions, including in “objective” reporters. Despite this human tendency, there is one end of the media spectrum — the end occupied by established, peer-reviewed, scientific journals — where we would normally expect to read articles that are impartial, unbiased scientific reports. Publishing based on scientific merit alone is one of the cornerstones of global science; without it, science could not advance as a coherent global endeavor.
But in the emotional shockwaves of the war in Gaza, the distinguished British medical-scientific journal The Lancet has exhibited a political, racist agenda that threatens to subvert the scientific method. This conduct should be sounding alarms to all those who value unbiased scientific publishing.
“An open letter for the people of Gaza,” signed by more than two dozen European doctors, was published last July in The Lancet. The lead author of the piece, Paola Manduca, is a doctor and political activist. Her “facts” seem to be provided by an organization that most of the Western world has defined as terrorist. Nowhere does the author mention, for example, the stated aim of Hamas to destroy Israel, nor does she deem it relevant that for the past 14 years this organization has been shelling Israeli civilian villages and cities with deadly rockets and missiles.
When a shrill, one-sided diatribe like this appears in a partisan tabloid, it does not move us. But to see the same words printed in the pages of a respected scientific journal was surprising and saddening, to say the least. This piece raises the specter of another dark day in the history of scientific publishing: In 1937, the scientific journal Nature published an article by Johannes Stark, Nobel laureate in physics and president of the Imperial Physical-Technical Institute. In “The Pragmatic and the Dogmatic Spirit in Physics,” he claimed that Jewish scientists, among them Albert Einstein, purposely sabotaged the advance of science. Stark, an active member of the Nazi Party, called the Jews a “disease.”
The publication of the letter in The Lancet led several of us, including three Nobel laureates (Dan Shechteman, Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hersko), a Muslim female scientist working in England and the U.S. (Qanta Ahmed), an Israeli scientist working at UCLA (Alon Avidan) and three presidents of top Israeli research institutes (Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion, Uriel Reichman, president of IDC, Herzliya, and myself, (president of the Weizmann Institute of Science), to write a response, thinking that The Lancet would be interested in open discussion. So we were sorely disappointed, and yes, even surprised, when the lead author of our letter received a standard, dry rejection letter. We noted that The Lancet took only three to four working days to accept the letter of Manduca, et al, while rejecting the letter of three Nobel laureates, three presidents and two respected researchers took no less than 12 days.
Already, the grave threat to The Lancet’s credibility is clear. But there is more. Several of us expressed our concern about the decision to publish one commentary (the open letter) and not the subsequent decisions of The Lancet’s editor, whose anti-Israel sentiments are known — in letters sent to leaders in the world of science publishing. None of us could have predicted what happened next: Qanta Ahmed, one of our co-writers who is an outspoken supporter of Israel, awoke one morning to find in her inbox a message that the editor of The Lancet was “pleased to inform her” that our letter had been accepted for publication. It appeared on Aug. 15 — with no peer review.
We should, of course, be pleased: Our goal was achieved, the letter was published. But in fact, what we uncovered, by accident, are “attack tunnels” like those dug by the Hamas into Israel, which weaken the foundations of science. We realized just how much the personal, political or even economic preferences of the editor of this esteemed journal may dictate its contents — rather than peer review, as we had assumed. And if peer review is not the sole basis of publishing in The Lancet, we start to wonder to what extent we can trust the merit of articles published in other scientific journals.
Stark’s 1937 article passed all the editorial hurdles of Nature. When such unfounded drivel gets into scientific journals — those beacons of rationality and scientific reason — we should all be worried. The previous time, it presaged destruction on a continental scale and the death of many millions. That time, after a long, bloody World War, the side of reason and sanity won out. But if we are not vigilant; if we do not at least insist on a balanced view, there is no guarantee that the next time the result will be the same.
Professor Daniel Zajfman is a physicist and the president of the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel.