Always modified my Twitter use in accordance with eLife board’s feedback, says sacked editor Michael Eisen

Responding to the journal’s clarification for firing its Editor-in-Chief, Michael Eisen told The Hindu: “I disagree completely with their assessment of what happened and am shocked that they take no ownership of their own role in creating this issue.”

Updated - November 04, 2023 03:09 pm IST

Published - November 04, 2023 08:45 am IST - CHENNAI

File picture of former eLife Editor-in-Charge Michael Eisen

File picture of former eLife Editor-in-Charge Michael Eisen | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On October 24, Michael Eisen was fired as the Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal eLife for quote tweeting The Onion’s satirical article that criticised every dying Palestinian for not condemning the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas. Following the backlash, Prof. Eisen clarified himself the same day in another tweet where he said: “Every sane person on Earth is horrified and traumatised by what Hamas did and wants it to never happen again. All the more so as a Jew with [an] Israeli family. But I am also horrified by the collective punishment already being meted out on Gazans, and the worse that is about to come.”

Soon after his clarification tweet, eLife journal joined the issue with a tweet, which has since been deleted, saying: “eLife condemns the atrocities committed by Hamas last week. We wish to highlight that, while the opinions of eLife staff and editorial board are their own, they are covered by our code of conduct. We take breaches of this seriously and investigate accordingly.”

On the day he was fired, the journal issued a statement that clearly cited the reason for firing Prof. Eisen. The statement said: “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. It is against this background that a further incidence of this behaviour [the October 14 quote tweet] has contributed to the board’s decision.”

On October 27, The Hindu published an analytical piece about Prof. Eisen being replaced by the journal. Hours after the story was published, an eLife spokesperson emailed a clarification on why Prof. Eisen was fired, which was published on October 28. While eLife’s clarification noted that “the particular content of Eisen’s tweets is not the reason behind the decision to replace him”, the reason cited in the statement posted on the journal website completely contradicted the clarification.

Disagree with clarification: Eisen

Responding to the journal’s clarification, Prof. Eisen reached out to The Hindu saying: “I disagree completely with their assessment of what happened and am shocked that they take no ownership of their own role in creating this issue.”

Reacting to eLife’s statement that obliquely referred to his October 14 tweet for firing him, Prof. Eisen told The Hindu in an email: “At no point in the past has anyone at eLife directed me not to express my own personal opinions on politics or any other issue not related to eLife, despite the fact that I have always done so and have continued to do so throughout my time at eLife.”

He added: “Indeed the board earlier this year set out ground rules for my use of Twitter that asked that I clearly say that my tweets are my personal opinions, thereby formally acknowledging that I have them and that they expected me to continue to make them. At the time they also asked that I not use my personal account to tweet about eLife policy. I have completely upheld this agreement, and the tweet in question did not violate either of these conditions.”

He further elaborated: “As I said above, I think it’s pretty clear that the reason they fired me is that my tweet was controversial and they feel that controversy undermines the organisation’s mission (I disagree with this, but they are free to think it). However, it is simply not tenable, in my opinion, to fire someone for saying something controversial and to pretend that the reason for it being controversial is irrelevant.

“For example, if I had issued a series of tweets that echoed the statement on the terrorist attacks from the Max Planck Society I don’t think there would have been any controversy. So, it is obviously false that the political content of the tweet had no impact on my firing.”

Responding to the spokesperson’s clarification that the “decision to replace Eisen was made due to his pattern of behaviour around communication and his decision to not act on feedback previously given”, he said: “The only time any members of the board has ever addressed something outside the scope of my work at eLife was when they asked me not to swear on Twitter following the whole kerfuffle over the worm joke. Other than that, all of our discussions about communications have been directly related to eLife.”

He also said: “The Board has expressed reservations about my use of Twitter in the past, and I have always modified my use of Twitter in accordance with their feedback. They have also on a few occasions taken issue with how I have pushed back in non-Twitter correspondence against efforts to undermine our publishing reform efforts. But again, nobody has told me how my recent tweet violated either the arrangements we made around my use of Twitter, or the broader eLife code of conduct. And, in any case, the board’s efforts to make this about a pattern of communication failures has clearly not convinced the public, the vast majority of whom believe the content of my Tweet was the primary reason I was fired. And while the EIC serves at the Board’s leisure, and they can choose to replace me for any reason they want, I think it’s a mistake for them not to tackle this question their action has raised about whether working as a journal EIC means you are not allowed to express controversial political opinions.”

Elaborating on what he meant in the message to this correspondent that he “disagree[s] completely with their [eLife’s] assessment of what happened”, he said: “I routinely tweet about scientific matters outside my scope as eLife EIC, about domestic and international politics, about climate change, about sports and other topics. I in no way connected my Tweet about Gaza to eLife, or to anybody connected to eLife. That connection was made by Israeli scientists who tagged my non-eLife related tweet to eLife, and then by eLife in their response to my tweet. For them to suggest that this was related in any way to my position at eLife or to the conflicts around the new eLife model is papering over the reality of what happened here: which is that a group of scientists successfully pushed eLife into firing me for a political statement based on the pretext that my Tweets exhibit a bias against Israeli scientists. This is not only risible, but completely unsupported by anything that has happened in my four years as EIC, during which time I recruited and promoted many Israeli editors and we published a large number of papers from Israeli authors.”

Explaining what he meant when he told this correspondent that the eLife/Board has taken “no ownership of their own role in creating this issue” and the possible reason for eLife deleting its October 14 controversial tweet, he said: “In my opinion, their Tweet was the problematic one because: a) it took my personal statement which had not involved eLife at all and made it about eLife, b) it suggested, by condemning Hamas, that I don’t condemn Hamas (which is absurd), and c) gave credence to the idea that I had violated eLife code of conduct (which they themselves have said was not why I was fired). Had they not issued that tweet, they could have simply said something like ‘This is Mike’s personal opinion, which he has every right to express. We do not believe his personal opinions impact his judgment as an editor and this controversy would likely have gone away. I also think that it is bad for eLife that they are sidestepping the fact that their actions seem to nearly everyone like they fired me for expressing support for Palestine.”

Finally, he summarised the danger when organisations decide to run their affairs based on the reaction on social media. “Putting aside the specifics of my situation, I think it would be disastrous for any company to establish the principle that people can be fired simply for being involved in controversies, as it cedes too much power to Twitter mobs and creates the situation we have before us where eLife claims to have no problem with the content of my tweet (which I don’t really believe but it is what they say) but chose to fire me for it simply because other people got upset by it, irrespective of whether or not eLife finds their reaction fair or reasonable.”

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