‘Atrium’ Editor: I’m ‘Not Moving Forward’ With Journal Under Prior Review Requirement

June 23, 2015

Professor Katie Watson, editor of the embattled Atrium journal at Northwestern University, has taken a strong stance against the university’s demand for prior review of the journal’s content.

As we announced in a press release last week, officials at Northwestern University have demanded prior review of the faculty-produced bioethics journal Atrium after it published an essay by Syracuse University Professor William J. Peace describing—in the context of a discussion of disability and sexuality—how he received consensual oral sex from a nurse while undergoing rehabilitation after his paralysis at the age of 18. The theme of that issue of Atrium was “Bad Girls,” and it was guest-edited by Alice Dreger, a clinical professor in the Medical Humanities & Bioethics program at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Northwestern’s initial response to the controversy over Peace’s essay was to remove the “Bad Girls” issue of Atrium from the university’s website altogether. Facing pressure from the university, the bioethics program removed all previously published issues, as well. After Dreger informed Northwestern that she intended to publicize the university’s censorship of the journal, the university restored online access to Atrium, but formed an oversight committee tasked with reviewing future Atrium content.

Northwestern has downplayed the committee, calling it “an editorial board of faculty members and others, as is customary for academic journals.” As The Huffington Post’s Tyler Kingkade reports, however, Atrium editor Watson (who is a Feinberg School of Medicine bioethics professor) was given a very different impression by the university. According to Watson, the committee with whom she met included medical school administrators as well as someone from the medical school’s communications department.

Watson said medical school administrators told her she must allow a “vetting committee” to review her editorial choices “and veto them if they were perceived to conflict with other institutional interests.”

“Approximately a week after this vetting committee told me what I would, and would not, be allowed to publish, I canceled the issue,” Watson told HuffPost, explaining she is “not moving forward with the publication under that condition.”

With the university holding firm on its prior review requirement, Kingkade reports that Atrium’s future is uncertain:

Watson is considering ways to make Atrium independent, to find another publisher, or to close the journal permanently.

“I work with good people in both the medical school and the hospital, and I remain hopeful,” Watson wrote. “But if I become convinced Atrium can no longer move forward with integrity here, I will drop the publication’s MH&B and NU affiliations and move it elsewhere, or I’ll throw a party for the terrific run it enjoyed and end it.”

If a faculty-produced bioethics journal cannot freely discuss thorny ethical issues like the ones raised in Peace’s article, there is no academic freedom at Northwestern University. We commend Katie Watson and Alice Dreger for their commitment to academic freedom and we sorely hope that Northwestern University ultimately decides to do the right thing and drop its demand for editorial control of Atrium.

Schools:  Northwestern University

Cases:  Northwestern University: Censorship of Faculty-Produced Bioethics Journal with “Bad Girls” Theme