Firing of science journal editor after Gaza post sparks free speech rift

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The firing of an editor who commented publicly about the Israel-Hamas war has triggered a series of resignations at a scientific journal and exposed a rift among some in the academic community about free speech and whose voices are elevated in science.

The board of the biomedical and life sciences journal eLife fired its editor-in-chief, Michael Eisen, after he posted on X on Oct. 13, “The Onion speaks with more courage, insight and moral clarity than the leaders of every academic institution put together. I wish there were a @TheOnion university,” while quoting a post from the satirical website with the headline, “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas.”

On Tuesday, Eisen, 56, who is Jewish and has family in Israel, posted that he had been fired for the comments.

“I have been informed that I am being replaced as the Editor in Chief of @eLife for retweeting a @TheOnion piece that calls out indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians,” he wrote on X.

The same day, the journal released a statement from its board of directors saying Eisen had “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” and that previous behavior influenced the board’s decision.

The journal, a well-regarded online publication based in the United Kingdom, directed NBC News to its statement and did not answer questions about the decision to fire Eisen or its fallout.

Eisen told NBC News that the board had asked him to delete the tweet that re-posted The Onion. He refused. The board then asked him to resign. He refused. Later, it fired him.

Michael Eisen. (Courtesy Michael Eisen)
Michael Eisen. (Courtesy Michael Eisen)

The controversy adds to what has become a fraught and contentious public atmosphere around the war in Israel and Gaza. The war has become a polarizing topic at many workplaces and university campuses as organizations debate how to handle employees with differing and strong viewpoints, the value of free expression and where to draw lines on speech some have deemed as harmful.

Such questions face industries across a wide swath of American and international life, from Hollywood — where a CAA agent resigned from an internal board following her social media comments, according to Variety — to the courtroom, after a New York University law student lost their job for their role in issuing a Student Bar Association statement. Many of the controversies, like Eisen’s, which have played out in public view online, centered on comments that have been criticized as being anywhere from insensitive to Israelis to supportive of Hamas.

Since Eisen was fired, at least five of the journal’s editors have said on X that they had resigned. Other scientists said they would stop participating in eLife events. a member of the nonprofit journal’s board of directors said he opposed the board’s actions. Other academics organized a petition letter protesting Eisen’s firing and saying it is having a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression in academia.

More than 2,000 scientists, academics and researchers apparently signed the online petition, though some have remained anonymous.

“The right to express dissenting views is a cornerstone of our intellectual mission as scientists and citizens,” the letter says, addind, “Eisen’s social media posts should not be grounds for removing him as eLife editor or otherwise censuring him.”

Fede Pelisch, a cell biologist at Scotland’s University of Dundee, resigned from eLife’s board of directors after its action, writing in a resignation email that its handling of the firing left people feeling silenced and that the decision discouraged people from voicing opinions if their opinions did not “conform to orthodoxy.”

In a separate email to NBC News, Pelisch said that as a member of the board he was part of deliberations about whether to fire Eisen, that he disagreed with the board’s decision and that it goes against the journal’s mission to encourage diversity and openness.

Asked whether Eisen was fired for his post on X, Pelisch wrote: “I think this was a big part of it but this is a more complicated matter, conflated by many people inside the eLife community not accepting the new eLife’s direction and some people’s personal dislike of Dr. Eisen’s ways of sharing thought-provoking opinions.”

Derya Unutmaz, a professor and immunologist at the Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit research group based in Maine, spoke out about Eisen’s post on X the day after it was posted and said later in an interview that he felt someone in such a prominent position in science had a responsibility to be sensitive to Israelis whose families might have been affected by violence, including Israeli scientists.

“He’s a well-known scientist and the editor of a scientific journal. I felt he needed to be more responsible,” Unutmaz said, adding that he thought an editor leading a journal should take extra caution not to appear biased toward a particular group or viewpoint.

Unutmaz, who said he supports Eisen’s positions on scientific journal publishing, said he was “neutral” about Eisen’s firing without more information and said he did not see it as a restriction of freedom of speech.

“He can go ahead and say what he wants on social media, but there’s going to be a response to your choices,” Unutmaz said.

Eisen is a prominent voice in scientific publishing and is viewed as a disruptor of the status quo in the industry. This year eLife changed its operating model to eliminate the traditional “accept and reject” function scientific journals typically use and instead publish peer review critiques — whether lauding or critical — in conjunction with articles. The journal is an open access journal, which means articles are free and available online to the public. Proponents of changes to the publishing system often argue that traditional academic journals are gatekeepers and that careerism gives scientists incentives to guide their research to fit the tastes of journal editors, who are often older white men.

Asked about his leadership approach and communications, Eisen said the board had previously asked him not to swear on social media after a joke about worms, which included a curse word, spiraled out of control. He stopped swearing on social media, he said. Eisen said he has ruffled feathers with his “sometimes confrontational” communications with prominent outside scientists, who dislike his approach to publishing.

“I’m always outspoken. I wear my thoughts on my sleeve. I’ve always been involved in publishing reform for a quarter-century,” Eisen said. “I responded to criticism of what we’re doing — I would say — not always with the most delicate language.”

Several Israeli scientists said on X that they were offended by his X posts. Eisen said he never meant to cause pain to people who were suffering; his intention, he said, was to call attention to the lack of care for Palestinian civilians.

Israel began a complete siege and aerial bombardment of Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’ terrorist attack on Oct. 7, which killed more than 1,400 people. So far more than 7,000 people in Gaza are estimated to have been killed amid a humanitarian crisis.

“I expressed my opinion, an opinion about the way that American institutions, especially universities, have been kind of not expressing equal concern for the deaths of Palestinians as they have Israelis, which I think is a moral mistake and a political mistake,” Eisen said. “I don’t think that Israeli scientists should feel like the scientific community does not have their backs. The support has been very strong — I thought it was obvious. People don’t always express themselves well in these situations. I wish I made clear how I empathized with them, too.”

Lara Urban, a reviewing editor at eLife who also contributed to its early career advisory group, resigned in solidarity after Eisen was fired. Urban, who receives a small yearly stipend for work on the advisory group, said she viewed Eisen as someone who was trying to push equity and inclusion forward within scientific publishing, that his social media postings stood up for minority opinions within the scientific community and that the board’s actions would chill free academic speech.

Urban was part of a group of early-career scientists who wrote to the board as it considered whether to fire Eisen. She said the group never heard back.

“It was a personal opinion,” said Urban, a principal investigator and genomics researcher at Helmholtz Munich, a research institute in Germany. “We really got more and more concerned that, most importantly, there was a precedent being set, that someone can be fired for voicing an unpopular opinion. Freedom of speech is very important in academia.”

Eisen said the board had every right to fire him, that no one should feel sorry for him and that he is not concerned that the firing put his employment elsewhere at risk. He does feel the institution of eLife failed because it bowed to social media calls for his dismissal.

“It’s terrifying we function this way. It’s terrifying institutions are more concerned about what mobs think of them than doing the right thing,” Eisen said. “I think we have to learn to say things we disagree with without them being hounded off the face of the Earth.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 26, 2023, 5:37 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the fired editor. He is Michael Eisen, not Eisner.

CORRECTION (Oct. 27, 2023, 3:51 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated what Helmholtz Munich is. It is a research institute, not a university.

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