An unusual essay filled two full pages of the print edition of The New York Times’ science section last week.
“A Scientific Paper” crowed the piece’s headline in the December 20, 2016, Science Times section. A long, dense and puzzling essay titled “Will and Physics,” by one Donald McCartor, followed a 15-paragraph introduction. That introduction noted that the manuscript had been rejected in 2014 for publication in any American Physical Society journal.
Twin “ADVERTISEMENT” slugs topped the piece on pages D4 and D5. A gray border framed the copy, and the font throughout differed from the Times’ classic Cheltenham used in the print edition. Many online and print news publications rely on similar cues to demarcate advertising copy from news.
The 80-year-old McCartor, unaffiliated with any research institution, says he simply wanted to share his ideas about quantum mechanics and free will — but the ad left many readers (and media watchers) scratching their heads.
McCartor’s paper has never been edited or peer-reviewed professionally, so I consulted philosopher Dan Lloyd at Trinity College for some insights into the essay’s ideas. [Disclosure: he’s my uncle.] McCartor’s points basically echo familiar, more comprehensive attempts by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, Lloyd says, to apply quantum indeterminacy to the question of whether we all have free will — that is, whether or not our thoughts and actions are determined in advance, like other physical processes.
Donald McCartor couldn’t get his scientific ideas published in a journal. So he published them in an advertisement in The New York Times.
Philosophers and neuroscientists have, in fact, mostly thought this issue through. “Many of us are ‘compatibilists’ about free will,” Lloyd says, noting among them David Hume and Daniel Dennett. “Wills are free when we act for reasons within us, rather than via compulsions from without.”
The more prosaic question, of course, is what the advertisement was doing there in the first place. The unusual, double-truck display arrives during a troublesome era for media, when hundreds of news and academic publishers with gravely wounded business models are seizing and even closing. And while the use of advertisement space to publish journal-style papers is unlikely to become a steady revenue generator for The Times, the ad brings to mind some newer practices in the publishing world.
Various academic journals now operate on a pay-to-play basis rather than relying on dwindling advertising and subscription dollars. Scholars, their grants, or their employers pay a fee to a journal once their research paper is accepted for publication. But the most highly regarded of these publishers primarily publish peer-reviewed and heavily edited papers. And the papers are laid out to editorial standards, not within advertising boxes.
McCartor says he paid $44,000 for the two-page spread in Science Times, and while the paper draws the line at tobacco ads, “topless” ads, and medical quackery, anyone with money is free to publish in The Times’ advertising space, according to Steph Jespersen, the director of advertising acceptability at the newspaper. Ads can include research papers, opinion essays, or just about any other message. Jespersen makes suitability calls daily, without knowledge of the cost of each ad.
The Times has many advertising topic categories, each with its own rate structure. This ad fell within the “advocacy” category, Jespersen says. “As long as the ad is presented in good taste and is not hate speech, and doesn’t violate anyone’s civil rights,” he says, “then we’re okay with it.”
Various fonts and graphic elements — the “ADVERTISEMENT” rubric, for example, or the borders — can be used to make sure the copy looks like an ad, not news, Jespersen adds.
Advocacy and opinion ads overall contribute significant revenue to the newspaper, Jespersen says. Topics might include the president-elect, international politics or mass shootings. But the Times has published only a few other scientific papers or opinions in its ad space, he says.
Advertisements that meet The Times’ standards may be labeled as a monologue, a notice, or a message.
“Whatever they want to call them, they can call them that,” Jespersen says. “As long as they don’t call them news.”