Academic Censorship in STEM Fields

Jordan Peterson:

The first story emerges at Brock University, in combination with the scientific journal Angewandte Chemie—the former an educational institution of moderate reputability; the latter a prestigious place of scientific publication among chemists. It is no easy matter to find a permanent tenured faculty position at such a university, or to publish research findings or literature reviews/summaries in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The process generally requires several years and multiple resubmissions and rounds of editing by a minimum of three colleagues per submission with expertise in the field as well as approval by the editor. Angewandte has a rejection rate of 80%—and it should be noted that that rejection rate only takes into account papers that the submitting researcher felt were of sufficient quality to be considered by a journal of high standards. Dr. Tomas Hudlicky of Brock submitted an essay memorializing and updating a piece written thirty years ago, which has been widely recognized as powerfully influencing the direction of the chemistry subfield in question (organic synthesis).

Now, the first thing that must be understood about Dr. Hudlicky is that he holds a prestigious Canada Research Chair, a position funded by part of a large federal initiative devoting approximately 300 million dollars per year in the attempt to attract to Canada (or to encourage to stay in Canada) researchers who are of particular promise, as evidenced most fundamentally by their research productivity. That promise or productivity, in turn, can be measured with reasonable accuracy with metrics such as number of peer-reviewed articles in relevant scientific journals (more than 400 in Hudlicky’s case), by noting how many times such articles are cited by other authors over the years subsequent to publication (Hudlicky: 13300) and, finally, by a metric known as the h-index, which provides a measure of how many publications have received a variable minimum number of citations (and which therefore combines in a single number some information about publications per se and some about citations). A researcher with an h-index of 10 has published 10 papers with 10 or more citations; a researcher with an h-index of 57 (Hudlicky’s score) has published 57 papers with 57 or more citations. Hudlicky’s research productivity is admirable and rare. The mere fact that he was hired as a Canada Research Chair meant that his department, as well as the federal governmental agency tasked with funding the attraction or retention of extreme talent, both determined in the relatively recent past that he was a fish well worth landing. Something about this needs to be clarified: the universities that hire those researchers competent enough to be competitive in a Canada Research Chair competition are not doing them a favor by offering them a position; rather, it is an honor for the university (and the students, both undergraduate and graduate, that attend the institution) to be chosen by the researcher in question. No serious academic disputes this, although some may quibble about the precise metrics used for identification of the serious talent. This is particularly true of an institution such as Brock, which is an university of reasonable but not exceptional quality, and which genuinely needs highly productive faculty members to help it ratchet itself up the very competitive academic ladder.

Hudlicky’s paper in Angewandte Chemie was peer-reviewed positively, judged as desirable by the relevant editorial staff, and published. This meant that it managed the difficult job of passing through the eye of a needle, and entering the kingdom of heaven, at least as far as research chemists might be concerned. But some of Dr. Hudlicky’s surmises with regard to the discipline of organic synthesis raised the ire of a Twitter mob ( This is not a difficult feat, in my opinion, as Twitter seems to exist primarily for the purpose of generating mobs—composed primarily of individuals who are hungry for the opportunity to taste blood and bask in the joys of reasonably risk-free reputation destruction, revenge and self-righteousness. Furthermore, as far as Twitter mobs go, those who complained about the Angewandte Chemie publication were not particularly numerous. No matter: once the complaints emerged, the editor of the journal in charge of Dr. Hudlicky’s work—one Dr. Neville Compton—removed the paper from the journal’s website, and offered an abject apology for daring to have published it in the first place. Furthermore, he reported the “suspension” of two of the journal’s editors (indicating precisely how much trust those individuals should have placed initially in his judgement) and cast aspersions on Hudlicky’s ethics, stating that his essay did not properly reflect fairness, trustworthiness and social awareness, while implying that the now-pilloried author and his peer reviewers and editors were discriminatory, unjust and inequitable in practice. It should be noted, by the way, that the position of editor for a scientific journal is general one filled by volunteers, who donate their time for the greater good of the scientific enterprise, rather than for any monetary gain. So Compton fired generous volunteers to ensure that his good name would not be irredeemably sullied by any association with the now-demonized professor Hudlicky and his ne’er-do-well compatriots (none of whom likely knew each other except in passing).