Scientist says researchers in immigrant-friendly nations can’t use his software

A German scientist is revoking the license to his bioinformatics software for researchers working in eight European countries because those countries allow too many immigrants to cross their borders. From 1 October, scientists in Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Denmark—”the countries that together host most of the non-European immigrants“—won’t be allowed to use a program called Treefinder, informatician Gangolf Jobb wrote in a statement he posted on his website.

Treefinder has been used in hundreds of scientific papers to build phylogenetic trees, diagrams showing the most likely evolutionary relationship of various species, from sequence data. Although the change in the license may be a nuisance for some researchers, the program is far from irreplaceable, several scientists tell ScienceInsider. Treefinder had not been updated for several years and it was mostly used by researchers who had grown used to it, they say. Some pointed to a list of possible alternatives online.

“Immigration to my country harms me, it harms my family, it harms my people. Whoever invites or welcomes immigrants to Europe and Germany is my enemy,” Jobb’s statement reads. “Immigration unnecessarily defers the collapse of capitalism, its final crisis,” the statement also reads.

Jobb had already excluded researchers in the United States from using the software in February. “I want to stress that this license change is not against my colleagues in the USA,” he wrote at the time, “but against a small rich elite there that misuses the country’s power to rule the world. The USA is our worst enemy.” In another part of the website, Jobb writes that “the scientific system is being misused to promote” the goals of a “small elite” and that “evil old men rule the world.”

The 2004 paper describing Treefinder was written by Jobb and Korbinian Strimmer, a bioinformatician at Imperial College London who says he hasn’t seen Jobb in 10 years. Jobb sent “grotesque emails with racist slogans” to professors in Germany in the past, Strimmer says. “His new diatribe against countries that host refugees is unbelievable.”

Strimmer says Jobb started a Ph.D. at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, under Arndt von Haeseler, now at the Center for Integrative Bioinformatics Vienna, who is also a co-author on the 2004 paper. Jobb later broke off his Ph.D., however, and joined Strimmer’s group for a year. “During that time I managed to persuade him to write the publication on Treefinder,” Strimmer says. It is not clear whether Jobb still has a job. (His website says that he “cannot work as a scientist, because my traditional views and values conflict with that elite’s doctrine.”)

Jobb initially declined to answer questions via email, referring to his website. But in an email sent after this article was first published, he said he was “no more ‘racist’ than most people in Europe” and that he wasn’t against saving refugees.

“I’d say not being able to use Treefinder would be no great loss to anyone,” says Sandra Baldauf, a biologist at Uppsala University in Sweden. A paper co-authored by Baldauf last year in Current Biology used Treefinder primarily because a colleague had long worked with it, she says; now that that researcher has left, Baldauf uses different software, she wrote in an email. And after reading Jobb’s statement, “I would stop using [Treefinder] just on general principle, even if we had to resort to using pencil and paper.”

Another researcher, biologist Maria Nilsson-Janke at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Frankfurt, Germany, says her team has been using the software and only became aware of the change in the license—and Jobb’s worldview—after an email from ScienceInsider. She and her team “started to look for replacements, and have already found suitable programs,”Nilsson-Janke says. “We will also reanalyze data sets that are in the pipeline to be published.”

The affair shows that it is important for scientists to be knowledgeable about licensing issues when using software, says Antoine Branca, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay, France, who co-authored a Nature Communications paper last year that also relied on Treefinder. Because Jobb owns the licence, he can restrict it as he sees fit; licenses like the GNU General Public License, on the other hand, grant users rights to use, study, share, and even modify the software freely. “Maybe people will be more aware of this now,” Branca says.

*Update, 30 September, 5:00 p.m.: Comments from Jobb were added to this story after its first publication. Also, a comment about the Treefinder software was removed and the name of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre was corrected.

Posted in Europe, Scientific Community