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Editors of Nature speak out against harassment of COVID-19 scientists

Editors of Nature speak out against harassment of COVID-19 scientists

COVID-19 is a highly regarded scientific publication, and the editors of Nature on Wednesday condemned harassment of scientists who speak about it, saying intimidation is unacceptable on any scale.

In an online editorial, the journal urged institutions at all levels to do more to protect and defend scientists.

The journal added that a lot more support, protection, and training for scientists in the public eye are needed against researchers all over the world, both by individuals and organized anti-science or antivaccination campaigns.

In a pandemic, clear, accurate public communication from scientists is vital, the editorial stated. And if researchers are prevented from contributing to public debate, it would be a huge loss.

The journal also released a news story on its website Wednesday that covered the results of nascent research it sent to scientists. More than two-thirds of the 321 respondents, who were mainly from the United Kingdom, Germany, and the US, reported negative experiences after media appearances or online comments.

Twenty-two percent of respondents received threats of physical or sexual violence, and 15 percent received death threats. Six of the scientists reported being physically attacked.

According to the article, one researcher stated in their survey response, "I believe that national governments, funding agencies, and scientific societies have not done enough to publicly defend scientists."

The editors of the journal stated, Scientists and health officials should expect their research to be challenged and questionable, and should welcome constructive feedback." But threats of violence and extreme online abuse do nothing to encourage debate and risk undermining science communication at a time when it has never been more crucial.

Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist who is emeritus professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif. and tweets about COVID-19, tweeted Wednesday that it was an important editorial... in case anyone believes its straightforward and easy to present science during the epidemic.

Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease physician at the World Health Organization who was interviewed for the story, thanked the journal on Twitter for bringing attention to the issue, saying she was not prepared for this onslaught of harassment and it affected me deeply.

Martin Finucane is a writer who can be reached at martin.finukane@globe.com.

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