Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Michael Eisen | X | eLife
A life and biomedical sciences journal ousted its editor in chief after he posted on social media about the Israel-Hamas war—including sharing an article from The Onion, a satirical news site.
“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,” Michael Eisen, the now-former editor, wrote on X Monday.
Eisen, a genetics and development professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is Jewish, didn’t return Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment.
The controversy has included scholars announcing resignations from eLife roles over Eisen’s comments—and resignations over his ouster.
eLife, an open-access journal, emailed Inside Higher Ed a statement Tuesday rather than provide a requested interview about the decision. The United Kingdom–based organization said its governing board, which is “distinct from the staff and editors,” made the call to replace Eisen.
“We thank Mike Eisen for his creativity and vision in building eLife’s transformative new publishing model,” 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 behavior has contributed to the board’s decision.”
The statement said eLife’s board is made up of representatives of eLife’s founding funders—the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Germany-based Max Planck Society and the London-based charity Wellcome—and “independent board members.”
The headline of the Oct. 13 Onion article Eisen shared was “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas.”
“Instead of issuing a full-throated denunciation of the violent attacks by Hamas that have left over 1,300 Israelis dead, one dying woman holding her 6-year-old son who had just been killed in a bombing is said to have doubled down by telling her child she loved him,” the article said. “At press time, the Israeli Defense Forces [sic] Twitter account underscored the massive surge of contempt they were contending with by posting a video that featured the shocking savagery of a Palestinian corpse that refused to condemn Hamas even when kicked.”
Eisen reposted a link to the article on X that same day, adding, “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.”
That repost, formerly called a quote tweet when X was still called Twitter, had racked up over 4,700 likes and 900 reposts as of Tuesday evening.
Multiple X users criticized Eisen’s post, including scholars in Israel. One was Karina Yaniv, the Enid Barden and Aharon J. Jade Professorial Chair in Vascular Biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
“It is with lots of moral clarity that I’ve just resigned from my role as reviewing editor in eLife,” Yaniv tweeted Oct. 14. “Prefer to dedicate my volunteering time to groups whose ‘courage, insight and moral clarity’ are now speaking up for babies, kids and women kidnapped by Hamas #Hamas_is_ISIS.”
In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Yaniv wrote, “I have more important things to do with my volunteer time than contributing to a project led by someone whose judgment and sensitivity I cannot fully trust. I believe that comments hurting others’ feelings or that can be perceived as a threat to particular groups, cannot be part of the lexicon of someone in such a position of power.”
She wrote that she doesn’t “have a stance on whether eLife should or should not replace the EIC [editor in chief]; this request is not reflected in any of my previous statements and it is for them to decide. I can only decide for myself, based on my principles and moral clarity, where I stand.”
An American academic, Dion Dickman, associate professor in the University of Southern California’s department of neurobiology, also tweeted Oct. 14 that he was resigning from eLife’s editorial board.
“This is a time for moral clarity and leadership amidst all the pain,” Dickman tweeted. He told Inside Higher Ed he didn’t have further comment.
Eisen explained his views in further posts on X.
“Every sane person on Earth is horrified and traumatized by what Hamas did and wants it to never happen again,” he posted Oct. 14. “All the more so as a Jew with 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.”
Eisen had tweeted about Israel before. Critics shared one post from 2018, in which he just wrote, “Fuck Israel.”
On Oct. 14, eLife tweeted that it “condemns the atrocities committed by Hamas” and that editorial board members’ opinions are “covered by our code of conduct.”
“We take breaches of this seriously and investigate accordingly,” it tweeted.
The journal didn’t say what part of the code of conduct Eisen allegedly violated. An online version of the code says it “applies to all eLife staff, editors and early-career advisors—when acting with or on behalf of eLife.” It includes under “Examples of unacceptable behavior” a reference to “Trolling, insulting or derogatory comments, profanities and personal attacks.” It also links to a separate social media policy.
Lara Urban, a principal investigator at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, said she resigned Monday from her eLife editor and early-career adviser positions in response to Eisen’s ouster. She had been trying to stop the firing.
“It should have been very important to listen to the early-career advisory group as people who might bring in very different perspectives to the mainly white, Western society–based leadership and Board of Directors,” Urban said. Yet, she said, she learned about Eisen’s firing from X.
Urban said a “sort of internet mob” and “cyber inquisition” made eLife investigate something that should never have been investigated. She said Eisen’s ouster was an irrational attack on his freedom of speech from an organization that has historically tried to make “access to science more equitable.”
“It can even happen at such an organization,” she said, adding, “we have to avoid these sorts of things in the future.”