What really happened when two mathematicians tried to publish a paper on gender differences? The tale of the emails

By Ivan Oransky


Retraction Watch readers may be familiar with the story of a paper about gender differences by two mathematicians. Last month, in Weekend Reads, we highlighted an account of that story, which appeared in Quillette.

The piece, by one of the paper’s authors — titled “Academic Activists Send a Published Paper Down the Memory Hole” — touches on issues familiar to those who follow the culture wars, which isn’t all that surprising given the controversial topic, one once discussed by then-Harvard president Larry Summers.

The piece has generated a great deal of conversation, some of it quite heated, and a number of participants in those conversations have suggested that seeing the emails that the author of the Quillette piece says support his account would be useful. That’s what this post is mostly designed to do: Surface those emails.

But first, some background. In a nutshell, the paper — by Theodore P. Hill and Sergei Tabachnikov — was accepted last year by one journal — The Mathematical Intelligencer — and then that acceptance was rescinded. It was then accepted — and published, on November 6, 2017 — by another journal, The New York Journal of Mathematics.

That status, however, turned out to be short-lived. On November 9, 2017, the paper disappeared, eventually to be replaced by a completely different paper. The story goes on from there, as Hill details in Quillette, and a preprint version of the manuscript is available on arXiv.

Now, we will stipulate, as we sometimes feel the need to do, that we are not experts in this subject matter, whether one considers the subject math, human variation, or something else, for that matter. We will leave the analysis of its merits to mathematician Tim Gowers — here and here — and statistician Andrew Gelman, to whom, we should point out, one player in this episode suggested sending the manuscript for review. (You’ll see what we mean on page 17 of the document we promised we’d link to.) Other analyses are welcome in the comment section, as links, or text.

Where we are on firmer ground as experts is in scientific publications, particularly how they are retracted, and to some extent how their acceptances are rescinded. Let’s take the latter situation first: Acceptances are sometimes rescinded, and while such moves are inconvenient — to say the least — for authors, there is usually some strange or even troubling story behind it. We’ve seen several cases recently, for example, when editors rescind papers after showing it to publishers’ lawyers. But these papers aren’t retracted per se, because they were never published. That — sans the lawyer part — is what happened to Hill and Tabachnikov’s manuscript in The Mathematical Intelligencer (see page 14 of the document).

The lightning-fast retraction of the NYJM paper, however, is even more squarely in our wheelhouse. Following the publication of Hill’s account in Quillette, in a statement that studiously avoids the word “retracted,” substituting instead “pulled” and “rescind,” Benson Farb, of the University of Chicago — whom Hill asked the university to reprimand for “conduct unbecoming” of a university professor for his role in the affair (the university declined) — writes

I believe that the editor-in-chief should have added a statement about why this was done, but he did not.

Farb is correct. Failing to include a retraction notice or provide any other explanation of a retraction — and that’s what this is, no matter what the journal wants to not call it — violates Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines and might just, well, give ammunition to the idea that this paper fell victim to the culture wars.

We have learned that Mark Steinberger, the editor of NYJM, became ill in March, so he could not respond to our request for comment about why the journal hadn’t included a retraction notice. (Update: Steinberger died on Saturday, September 15, 2018.) Interim editor Kehe Zhu tells us:

I became an editor in late June, several months after the Hill article incident, and I haven’t even heard about it until recently. So obviously there isn’t much I can say here.

So much remains a mystery about this story. But in an attempt to shed some light, we asked Quillette and Hill if we could publish the documentation — mostly emails — that Hill said backed his version of events. He agreed, as long as it was a read-only version. You can find that here, with certain redactions of email addresses and phone numbers for privacy.

We look forward to a lively discussion in the comments.

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