When historian Ian Mosby submitted an article to the editors of the journal Histoire sociale/Social History, none of them suspected that it would create a media frenzy. A sizeable management challenge awaited them.
It was no wonder that the subject matter caught the media’s attention. In his article, Dr. Mosby, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Guelph, revealed that between 1942 and 1952, some of Canada’s leading nutrition experts, in conjunction with various federal departments, conducted experiments on Aboriginals in native communities and residential schools without their consent or that of their parents. Some children’s milk rations were cut in half for two years, while others were deprived of vitamin B1, iron and iodine, in addition to having their dental care suspended.
“This is a truly shocking story that I’m glad my article in Histoire sociale/Social History was able to bring to the Canadian public’s attention,” said Dr. Mosby.
In hindsight, it was easy to predict the indignation that ensued. Yet, Samy Khalid, the magazine’s managing editor, admits that he didn’t see it coming. “The article was written from a historical perspective; it wasn’t intended to stir up controversy,” he explains. Despite not being written as an editorial or a protest piece, the article triggered a nationwide reaction. The author and editor were suddenly bombarded with interview and information requests. Within barely 24 hours, Dr. Mosby had given some 20 interviews to various media outlets. And the attention didn’t wane in the days that followed.
Coping with the attention
Being unaccustomed to dealing with the requests generated by such a media storm, Dr. Khalid was prompted to take some unusual measures. He began by issuing a press release, the first in the magazine’s 45-year history.
He then decided to offer free online access to the article for a limited time, a practice that would be much more common if it were up to him. “The open-access publishing of scientific articles is gaining momentum in Europe and the U.S.,” he notes, “particularly when the research is funded by the government, and therefore the public. However, this poses a problem for us when it comes to the magazine’s viability, which relies on subscription revenues to top up its very limited funding from York University and the University of Ottawa.”
This experience helped demonstrate the value of magazines that publish academic research findings. When these types of magazines are only loosely associated with universities, as is the case with Histoire sociale/Social History, they struggle to obtain adequate funding or to earn a spot in universities’ communications strategies. “And yet,” Dr. Khalid notes, “universities benefit from the visibility generated by these magazines when an article attracts public attention. To ignore them would be unwise.”
I’m hard pressed to believe that no one involved (author, editors, …) appreciated this article would be controversial when it includes a number of extremely critical statements about the research, such as the closing: “These experiments therefore must be remembered and recognized for what they truly were: one among many examples of a larger institutionalized and, ultimately, dehumanizing colonialist racial ideology that has governed Canada’s policies towards and treatment of Aboriginal peoples throughout the twentieth century.” Certainly sounds like editorializing.