Politics Over People and Policy

SSP's response to a complaint shows that politics, not people, are its focus now

Politics Over People and Policy

If there’s one thing I’ve learned this past year, it’s that SSP has become much more of a political organization than it ever was in my experience.

No matter how nice it appears, or how caring its statements, SSP leadership is probably sizing you up politically, and can become a ruthless operator if your political potential doesn’t fit its stances and aspirations.

This all started last October when I was invited to participate in an SSP webinar. The topic was “trust in science,” and the webinar included me, the EIC of Scientific American, an epidemiologist with a popular e-newsletter reaching the informed public, and a representative from PLOS.

The person from PLOS was Niamh O’Connor. I suspected we were in for a ride with her when during pre-webinar introductions, we all had to correctly pronounce her first name, down to the most subtle of inflections, before she would relent and proceed to talk with any of us. As someone who has done entire meetings and webinars as “Kurt,” this was bemusing.

As the webinar went on, O’Connor consumed a lot of time with word salads and bloviation, and we tangled a little over the notions of trusted intermediaries, preprints, and open science — as expected. Nothing rose beyond intellectual sparring.

Then, when O’Connor went so far as to question whether authority of any kind was valid in science, I asked her if she believed vaccine mandates were valid. She hesitated, and because we had consumed so much time, and two other great speakers were waiting (and the moderator had disappeared), I interrupted her and said, “I’ll take that as a ‘no.’” This was done so I could pivot to asking the other two what they thought.

O’Connor was not to be deterred. She feigned offense at being interrupted, and proceeded to lecture us about decorum and then about how everyone should do their own research and come to their own conclusion about vaccines. (In other words, she consumed another 7-10 minutes to posture and say, as predicted, “No.”)

I said nothing more during the remainder of the webinar. One chat said that my questioning of O’Connor had been “pretty aggressive.”

The webinar ended, and I moved on, my teeth grinding for a few minutes about O’Connor being such a blowhard and hogging the webinar. But I got over it.

Fast-forward, and within a few days I learned that a complaint had been lodged with SSP claiming I had violated the Code of Conduct by aggressively questioning O’Connor and interrupting her.

I was involved with finalizing and approving the SSP Code of Conduct, so I presumed this was a nuisance complaint. After all, the Code stipulates — at my urging, backed up by others in the SSP presidential succession chain who have written for the “Scholarly Kitchen” and know that sometimes intellectual exchanges can get chippy and feel personal — that “[w]ithin the context of professional practices of scholarly communications, critical examination of beliefs and viewpoints does not, by itself, constitute hostile conduct or harassment.”

Given this, I wrote back that I didn’t feel this rose to the level of a Code of Conduct violation — after all, the Code of Conduct was created in response to sexual harassment, groping, and stalking behaviors at meetings, not in response to people getting frustrated with others over intellectual disagreements. The interactions I had with O’Connor did not, in my view, violate the letter or spirit of the Code of Conduct. And I was there at its inception.

Nevertheless, within a short period of time, I learned I was sanctioned from SSP events for one full year based on my behavior during that webinar. Not a warning, not a month, but one full year.

Astounding. And still, no phone call from the current President or Executive Director to a member and past-President to soften the blow, explain why, or deliver the news personally.

Now, it bears emphasis that I was an SSP member at the time, and O’Connor was not. However, she was Chair of ALPSP (just about to step down from that position). This made it entirely possible that her complaint was presented and viewed as something with more political ramifications than merely hurt feelings at being interrupted.

I don’t know this to be true, but the behavior before, during, and after all of this — and second-hand information — supports that view with circumstantial evidence. Especially because political considerations can lead to backroom deals.

As a past-President of SSP, I know from my predecessors and successors that when there is a delicate issue, the smart thing to do — the people-oriented thing to do — is to call those involved and talk with them, in order to understand things better, to avoid unnecessary escalation, and to simply make people feel respected and included. I’d seen it work miracles in the past, resolving apparently difficult issues to everyone’s satisfaction and without any public or personal escalation.

Alice Meadows, the President at the time, never called me. Nobody from SSP called me. Nobody had the common courtesy to reach out to a member accused of violating a policy, even to make them feel like it mattered to the organization or its leadership, and that they would work to ensure it would be handled with care and respect.

As someone who has, over the past 25 years, made a difference to SSP and served it on a purely volunteer basis at the highest levels, developing initiatives and programs that set it apart, serving on the Board, and so forth, this lack of contact and diminution to the most perfunctory and rudimentary communications was, frankly, bizarre and insulting.

I later learned that the decision by Meadows and her team was “highly political” and “contentious.” In addition, the webinar has never been published, so I can’t even show you the supposedly offending moments so you can judge for yourself whether I was subject to sanction. I can offer no public defense, but people on the webinar have uniformly told me that nothing I did rose to a level justifying a sanction of any kind, not to mention a full year.

Since Meadows and I have been friendly over the years, I thought after the holidays that maybe I should take the high road, worrying that she was ill or had some other issues since her behavior was so aberrant. So, I called her to check in, just to make sure there wasn’t some mysterious reason she hadn’t called me. Had she lost her voice? Was she suffering from Covid? Were there mental health stresses shutting her down? I left a voicemail wishing her well, hoping everything was OK with her, and asking her to give me a call just so we could patch things up and move on. I later received an email — with her team cc’d — that she’d be happy to have a call with the entire team, and not 1:1.

That’s not the personal touch so many SSP Presidents have used so effectively over the years, and which one might expect as a past-President from the current President – and a “friend” who often sought you out for a hug at events and meetings over the years.

Instead, it had a whiff of “consciousness of guilt” in addition to being inconsiderate and impersonal.  

Since then, things have only devolved, and I am so disenchanted with SSP that I can’t imagine doing anything for the organization again. If I were a member of any other organization — and I belong to a few, inside and outside scholarly publishing — and were treated with the same level of callousness exhibited by the SSP team, I would be just as bewildered and insulted. It has turned me away from an organization I once admired, proudly belonged to, and worked hard to promote, enhance, and grow. After chairing the Top Management Roundtable and keynoting it; founding the “Scholarly Kitchen” and running it for years; serving on various Committees; serving on the Board and as SSP President; and receiving the SSP’s Distinguished Service Award, I am now going to walk away from an organization that no longer seems to value contribution, people, or members, but rather has become bureaucratic and political in its estimation of a member’s worth to the community.

I hesitated to share this all, because frankly it’s embarrassing. But that’s the real problem with it — I shouldn’t have been put in this position, and shouldn’t be the one who is embarrassed. SSP should be embarrassed for allowing a policy to be weaponized, for putting politics over people, and for treating a member shabbily.

The next time you are involved with SSP’s leadership, please remember membership and long-term service and contribution don’t make you more important than a well-placed non-member; diversity and inclusion don’t extend to placing phone calls to make people feel seen and respected when the chips are down; and, decisions that turn policies into cudgels are entirely possible when the political moment calls for it.

Farewell, SSP. I hope you can get back to putting people over politics.