Last week, biologist Michael Eisen was ousted from his post as editor-in-chief of the open access science journal, eLife, which has led to backlash from the scientific community. Some welcomed the decision.
The controversy began on Oct. 13 on the social media platform X, formerly called Twitter, where Eisen shared a satirical article published by the Onion titled “ Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas,” adding that “The Onion speaks with more courage, insight and moral clarity than the leaders of every academic institution put together. I wish there were a @The Onion university.”
Following calls for his resignation and criticism that deemed his tweet hurtful and insensitive toward Israeli scientists, Eisen clarified his comments, stating that as a Jewish person with Israeli family, he was horrified by what Hamas did but also by the collective punishment meted out by Israel on Gaza’s civilian population.
In a since-deleted tweet, eLife stated that breaches of their code of conduct by journal staff and board members are taken seriously and investigated. Eisen announced via X on Oct. 23 that he was being replaced as the editor-in-chief of the journal for retweeting the Onion piece.
The journal’s board of directors made a public statement Oct. 24 about their decision. “Mike has been given clear feedback from the board that his approach to leadership, communication and social media has at key times been detrimental to the cohesion of the community we are trying to build and hence to eLife ’s mission,” the statement said. “It is against this background that a further incidence of this behavior has contributed to the board’s decision.”
Nearly 2,000 researchers responded to Eisen’s removal in an open letter that argued the decision would create a chilling effect on freedom of expression in academia.
Needhi Bhalla, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, signed the letter. “I sympathized with the tweet but thought it was insensitive,” she says. However, firing Eisen for it was “seriously problematic” and “an awful signal to send to the scientific community,” she argues.
Another signatory, science integrity consultant Elisabeth Bik, resigned from her role as a member of eLife’s ethics committee after the decision. “I felt it was not a hateful tweet,” she says. Firing him, she adds, is “not a response I would have expected.”
University of Dundee’s Federico Pelisch, who was appointed to eLife’s board of directors as an early-career researcher earlier in 2023, also stepped down. “You might think his [Eisen’s] tweets were disrespectful, offensive, out of touch, insensitive, badly timed, etc. This however does not represent an infringement of eLife’s Code of Conduct,” Pelisch writes in an email to C&EN.
Eisen can be divisive, whether it’s decisions about eLife ’s editorial model, calling the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans an overhyped animal, or for tweeting “F--- Israel” in 2018 —prior to joining eLife —in response to Israeli forces shooting Palestinian protestors.
It’s plausible the eLife board has previously taken issue with Eisen’s leadership or found it lacking, says Joshua Dubnau, a neurobiologist at Stony Brook University, who also signed the open letter. “But if they deem this to be the final straw, it still implies wrongdoing,” he adds, “which is also problematic because then it’s also using his speech as the grounds to punish him.”
For Uri Ben-David, a cancer biologist at Tel Aviv University who had called for Eisen’s resignation after the initial tweet, it’s not a freedom of speech debate; it’s about Eisen’s fitness to lead a journal that promotes “core values of open science, open discourse, and inclusiveness.” He thinks it’s legitimate to be critical of Israel and Israel’s policies, but he believes Eisen showed insensitivity in addressing a complex situation. “This is a pattern,” Ben-David says.
While Ben-David thinks eLife made the right decision to replace Eisen, Pelisch listed his concerns about the effects of the move in a public resignation letter. “With so many people, particularly early-career researchers, now being even more afraid to speak out than they were before, a lot of energy will need to go into getting us to the place we were already at,” he says.
Michael Eisen did not respond to multiple interview requests from C&EN, and several eLife board members either did not respond or declined to comment.
This article was updated on Nov. 1, 2023, to restore missing words to a sentence about Michael Eisen being divisive. The first two examples are decisions about eLife’s editorial model and calling the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans an overhyped animal. Because of a production error, the original sentence rendered the examples as “eLife’s an overhyped animal.”