sic transit gloria mission statements…

nature.jpgNature recently published an editorial in which they discussed an update to their 1869 (!) mission statement. The editorial is subscription-only, but Maxine published an excerpt on Nautilus, which I further excerpt here:

The original mission statement of this journal, first printed in Nature’s second issue on 11 November 1869, was… running behind the times when it referred to “Scientific men” … In other respects it is well worded — which is why we print it every week in the Table of Contents.
In printing the statement verbatim every week as we have done, making it clear when it originated, we have hitherto assumed that readers will excuse the wording in the interests of historical integrity. But feedback from readers of both sexes indicates that the phrase, even when cited as a product of its time, causes displeasure. Such signals have been occasional but persistent, and a response is required.
There is a convention within the English language by which writers quoting text can indicate their view that a particular phrase is inappropriate. That is to insert sic, a Latin word meaning ‘thus’, after the phrase — in effect expressing the sentiment ‘alas, dear reader, this is what was said’.
This is what we will do in the mission statement from now on. The small, belated change takes place against the vast backdrop of a scientific world where the upper echelons of academia, academies and prestigious awards are still numerically greatly dominated by men, and where outright discrimination can still rear its ugly head… In this context, the insertion of a Latin word in a couple of paragraphs may be a tiny step: but it is at least one in the right direction.

Zuska took offence, and I was a bit puzzled myself so I went and asked Maxine to clarify:

This decision puzzles me. Why not simply change the wording (s/’Scientific men’/scientists) and say “we’ve updated the statement to better reflect our modern aims”?
Mission statements that date to 1869 are pretty damn cool, I’ll grant you — but it seems that here tradition is trumping concerns (which NPG obviously shares!) about inclusive language. Why take a “tiny step… in the right direction” when the whole step is so easy to take instead?

Maxine’s response:

We did update our mission statement years ago, and I’ve added a link to the newer version (on the “about the journal” page in my post above, in light of your comment.
What the Editorial said was that the “original” mission statement would contain this correction, on any future occasions where we reprint it. It did not mean to imply that we had not updated our mission statement since 1869.

So that makes more sense; but as Zuska points out, there is some confusion over which statement is going to appear where. So, being a scientist — we learn by doing — I went and looked.
Online: I started by typing in and looked around the page for some kind of “about Nature” resource. The first thing I found was About NPG under “Information” at the bottom of the page — since I was actually at the Nature Publishing Group homepage, Nature the journal being actually at
On the About NPG page, under “Browse”, “Company Information”, there’s a link to mission, whereat we find the original in all its sexist glory.
From (the journal itself), the obvious place to look is the About the journal link, which goes to the modern mission statement and includes a clearly labeled link to the same 1869 version as “mission” above.
In meatspace: I went to our little library here at work and picked up a physical copy of Nature for the first time in probably ten years. (Full disclosure, or something: it was the chimp genome issue, vol 437 issue 7055, Sept 2005.) The first five pages are full-page ads, and then comes the table of contents. In a sidebar on the left hand side is the following quote from the original mission statemtent, under the heading “NATURE’S MISSION, 1869:”; I’ve used a scan of the sidebar as a sort of sidebar for this entry. Note that this is not quite the same as, but not substantively different from, the online version.
So now at least I know what it is that I disagree with. I don’t think NPG should link to the 1869 statement, at least not without going through the modern version, as Nature (the journal site) does. I think the print journal should print the modern mission statement — with, if they want a nod to their impressive history, a comment to the effect that apart from updating sexist and exclusive language, not much has changed from the original (which is visible on our website, etc etc).

3 thoughts on “sic transit gloria mission statements…

  1. score me confused. I really don’t get what they were up to with this. the editorial tone is much more consistent with your conclusion, i.e., that the 1869 version is still very much a pride point of modern Nature. The Maxine response seems like BS spin in the context of what you report. Guess I’d better look at a current hardcopy of Nature…

  2. I’ve learned to give Nature the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know about the for-profit company behind it all, but the actual people running the journal and the blogs and so forth seem well-intentioned and savvy. Importantly, they have always responded to feedback, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they made some changes in response to Zuska’s prodding.

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