Accountability within Astrobites

Astrobites was founded to improve the accessibility of astrophysics research, so inclusivity is a core value to the collaboration. It is important to us that we continually critique the way our collaboration functions, to ensure that we don’t lose sight of this value, and to make sure that our actions are working towards building a more inclusive astronomy community. Sometimes we make mistakes, and it is painful that these cause harm; however, mistakes are also opportunities to reflect, learn and improve.

A few months back, we were called out on the title of one of our posts, which was a play on words referencing “Gone with the Wind.” Both the book and the film have entrenched, deeply problematic racism: they romanticize slavery and use Black suffering as a backdrop for white romance (some links with detail on this were provided by a follower on Twitter: here, here and here). It was not an appropriate reference to use flippantly as a title for one of our posts, especially in a week of particular trauma for Black folks with the announcement of the verdict in the case against the police who killed Breonna Taylor, that left many in deep disappointment and despair. 

We came together to discuss and published an apology shortly after this was pointed out to us, taking full responsibility for the harm caused. It was clear to us that an apology alone does not solve the problem—namely, that we posted something that caused harm to a community of our readers. We committed to further questioning the actions that led to this, and to reviewing our editorial process. For transparency and accountability, we are documenting this process and publishing it here. This post outlines the outcomes of our discussions and the actions we are taking forward. 

As individuals, we commit to:

1) Normalizing holding ourselves accountable for mistakes, questioning our initial reactions to being called out/in, and learning to apologize.

We value impact over intent. For many of us in the collaboration, our immediate reaction was one of defensiveness: “I didn’t write this piece”, “I haven’t seen the film or read the book, I didn’t really know how racist it was”. These thoughts do not help address the problem, as they have no bearing on the impact, only the intent — it is important to move beyond them.  

We made a mistake—in this case, one which reflects a lack of diversity and specifically of Black writers in our collaboration, and a failure as writers to educate ourselves. It is likely that we will make other, different mistakes in the future. This is not an attempt to make excuses, but to be realistic about our abilities as human beings. Learning about a mistake is an opportunity for growth, and it is important that we fully embrace that.

We also want to reflect on what constitutes a genuine apology. This article outlines the four parts of a meaningful apology—Self-Reflection, Apologizing, Repair, and Behavior Change—and we commit to practising these steps regularly.

2) Reading, learning, improving our awareness, and questioning our actions.

We are curating a reading list of resources, which will be circulated to our writers who will be encouraged to schedule calendar time to dedicate to anti-racist readings. We have a list of resources here that we published for Black in Astro week, but we will continue to update our internal suggested readings. We recognise it is important not to just passively read but to proactively put this learning into practise, and we commit to actively questioning the words we write and the topics we choose to cover more thoroughly with the context of these resources.

As a collaboration, we commit to taking these actions forward:

3) Adding a step to our editing process that asks writers to double-check their references.

Astrobites posts are often written in a colloquial style, with the aim of being more readable and engaging for non-expert audiences. However, this often means we reach for puns and pop-culture references without always having a full understanding of their meaning. We commit to checking our references more thoroughly, and using language with a greater awareness of its impact. This action item has been added to our writer’s checklist, and we have created internal channels to crowdsource reference checks (we acknowledge that this is still limited by who is present in the collaboration; this will be coupled with more thorough external research). Writers and editors commit to reading over posts prior to publishing, considering specifically whether anything in them may be harmful to communities in our audience. We also acknowledge that leaning heavily on puns and cultural references can be exclusionary to our readers for whom English is a second language and who do not live in a Euro-centric culture, and we will reflect further on the style and tone of our posts.

4) Reflecting on how we respond in “urgent” situations.

As a large collaboration, it is not always easy to gather a consensus on a short timescale. The perceived urgency of social media meant that we rushed in response to this call-out. While we were generally satisfied with the way this was handled in this case, urgency is often used as an excuse for inadequate action, omitting voices of minoritized groups, and to justify a lack of thoughtful decision-making or democratic processes—which are ultimately harmful actions that can perpetuate a culture of white supremacy. Not all members of our collaboration were consulted before our apology was published, and in the future we want to ensure that we do not fall victim to a false sense of urgency and overlook inclusive practices in haste. We are developing ways to improve transparency within our collaboration, and include everyone’s voices in decision-making processes. We have also established greater structure for internal accountability by appointing ombudspersons, who act as a point of contact for confidential reporting of any concerns within the collaboration. This should allow us to move forward with greater inclusion of voices within our community. 

5) Prioritizing  the diversification of voices, identities, and backgrounds represented within our collaboration through continuous re-evaluation of our hiring practices.

Ensuring that our collaboration represents marginalized and underrepresented voices is an important priority at Astrobites. Failing to meet this goal leads to the inevitable exclusion of important voices from our platform, and contributes to the existing inequities in our field. It also relates to some of the specific mistakes we have made in the recent past. There are various barriers and obstacles that have led to the under-representation of certain marginalized groups within our collaboration (the so-called “leaky pipeline“). Addressing this requires action at multiple levels, where success at each stage is also dependent on the stages before it: taking steps to be inclusive and accessible to a diverse community of readers; broadening our applicant pool such that it represents the diversity of our readership; and ensuring our hired authors reflect the diversity of our applicant pool. To achieve this, we have undertaken a series of actions over the past few years to combat potential bias in our recruiting and hiring, including reaching out to a wider range of institutions to advertise, and removing information such as names, institutions, and genders from our application review process, but we recognize there is more work to do. We therefore commit to:

a) Diversifying the pool from which we recruit, with special emphasis placed on reaching more students at international institutions and students who identify as underrepresented who might otherwise not have been aware of Astrobites.

b) Conducting a review of our hiring process to investigate and address any potential sources of bias that may affect new author recruitment, and consulting with external experts where possible.

c) Recognizing the constantly changing environment, and continuously revisiting our practices as the challenges faced by marginalized groups within academia shift and evolve, to learn about and implement best practices that ensure an equitable application process. 

We are continually striving to make the Astrobites collaboration a more thoughtful and inclusive environment, and to continue our mission of making astronomy more accessible. We thank you for your time in reading this statement, and we hope that this post might also serve as a useful point of discussion for other science communicators and collaborations about learning from feedback.

About Astrobites

This post was written collectively by multiple members of the Astrobites team. Meet the authors of Astrobites.

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