In July Helen Pearson, Chief Magazine Editor at Nature, and Magdalena Skipper, Editor in Chief of Nature, wrote about the harassment being experienced by journalists, particularly those reporting on the COVD-19 pandemic. They highlighted how journalists are being subjected to numerous abusive messages on social media and email, as well as inaccurate and disparaging pieces online. While the specific lines of attack vary, all were designed to undermine their professional integrity and credibility.
But journalists are not the only ones involved in communicating around COVID-19 who have found themselves under attack. We heard stories of scientists reporting similar experiences. Unfortunately, with such reports being largely anecdotal it had been too easy for these to be downplayed or ignored as something affecting only a few. Working closely with the scientific community, we felt that this might not be the case and wanted to get a greater sense of the extent of the issue. We were put in touch with the Australian Science Media Centre (SMC), who were concerned too and had surveyed their database of expert COVID-19 scientist commentators.
We decided to build on this and, based on the Australian SMC questionnaire, we surveyed more than 300 researchers around the world who had talked to the media about COVID-19. With the majority of respondents being in the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, 15% reported receiving death threats, and 22% threats of physical or sexual violence.
The respondents are self-selecting and not representative of a random sample: the results come from expert scientists who chose to respond to an email invitation distributed by Nature and by science media centres in the United Kingdom, Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand and Canada. But the findings do suggest that these experiences are sadly common. The results of this survey and our wider investigation was reported last week in Nature and provide further evidence on the abuse and harassment some scientists working on COVID-19 research have experienced as they sought to get the findings of their research out to the public via the news media. They have been on the receiving end of abusive online messages, some including specific threats, as well as personal phone calls and emails to employers, students, or family. A few researchers have been physically attacked.
As our editorial published to accompany the news feature makes it clear, we condemn this harassment. It intimidates and discourages researchers from speaking up, undermines the dissemination of scientific information and debate and sows the seeds of misinformation in its place. Similar tactics have been seen in the past, targeting researchers who work on vaccines, climate change and other high-profile topics. As public figures, scientists should expect and invite criticism and debate over their work, but these threats are unacceptable.
Encouragingly, the survey also found that scientists for the most part had positive experiences talking to the media – whatever followed – and that they recognised the benefits and importance of engaging with the public. The pandemic has shown how vital research is to public health, how important it is to get reliable information to people who need to hear it – and how determined scientific institutions and researchers should be to call out abuse. Nature will continue to support these efforts.