Dr. Isis: An Open Letter to Scientific American and Why You’ve Lost a Reader: #BoycottSciAm
[ UPDATE ADDED AT THE BOTTOM 2013-10-14 21:30 EDT]
[ UPDATE ADDED AT THE BOTTOM 2013-10-14 21:40 EDT]
Background: DNLee writes a great blog titled “Urban Scientist” blog, Scientific American. She’s a biology postdoc at a MRU and her topics are diverse. The tagline is “A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences” As that implies, the subject matter isn’t just science or even predominantly science. It’s substantially meta-science, talking in a very personal voice about the career issues of a young black female scientist and about the bigger picture of the scientific professional community. She is also an active Twitter user with an even broader range of topics.
Root incident: DNLee was solicited as a guest blogger by someone identifying himself as the “Blog Editor for Biology-Online.org” with the single name “Ofek” (like “Cher” I guess…) She asked about payment, he made the usual pitch about paying with exposure rather than money, she very politely declined. To which he needlessly responded, apparently for the sole purpose of calling her a “whore.”
Fallout: DNLee posted to Urban Scientist about the incident. You can’t see that post there any more because Scientific American pulled it. (Chase Dr. Isis’ links above to find the reblog of it. The tweeted rationale by their EiC: ” is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.”
There’s no interesting space for debate about “Ofek,” whose words triggered this odious yet easily unnoticed mess. He is at least unfit for engagement in professional communications. My personal instinct as an intrinsic asshole is that he is a waste of potentially useful organic materials and could most benefit the world by being rendered over a slow fire. His request, while couched in polite words and pitched well, was fundamentally insulting. DNLee declined in the most professional manner possible, politely not showing offense at the demeaning substance of his pitch. His answer to that with “whore” made a public “calling out” imperative. It is entirely a credit to her integrity and personal courage that DNLee responded so powerfully in a prominent place.
The removal of that response by SciAm was an act of cluelessness. It demonstrates a focused naive ignorance of the norms of the blogging world, even if it was an act that might have made sense for their print edition or its online derivative which have, quite rationally, cautious and stringent editorial policies. However, those policies cannot apply to blogs and have not been applied to the blogs at SciAm. DNLee and many other of their authors have posted many articles talking about unprofessional behavior in the scientific and science communication communities, both broadly and from a 1st person perspective on specific cases.
If one is unacquainted with the key ideas that distinguish “blogs” from traditional media (and their direct online derivatives such as the main SciAm site) the statement about the post removal by Mariette DiChristina might seem like a reasonable and sober editorial statement. For the rest of us, it stands out as a perfect specimen of the biological oddity produced unrelentingly by traditional commercial media like Scientific American: Transparent Bullshit.
It is interesting that biology-online.org is listed as a member of a “Partner Network” SciAm. What exactly that means isn’t clear: SciAm’s list is just a list of sites with blurbs and a link. Biology Online doesn’t mention the partnership. DiChristina tweeted a bit later that the partnership was “not a factor” but that seems to be more of the same: Transparent Bullshit
In context, it is obvious that the removal of DNLee’s post wasn’t normal. Something special drove it. The “Partner” relationship is something special, although what it is exactly is not clear. Something routed the SciAm editorial decision-making process out of its normal path, seeking a way to remove a post. The way normal processes get re-routed is access: someone who wants special treatment knows where to direct pressure outside the normal channels. The bullshit is transparent in both ways: one can willfully believe it isn’t there by pointing at the objective application of a sober and cautious editorial policy, but on the other hand that application is so far from normal in the context of SciAm’s blogs that it completely fails to mask the existence of some deeper truth about that odious editorial decision. This is a particular talent of professional media operations: providing low-risk pat explanations that don’t make trouble for anyone, even when someone clearly merits trouble.
Late addition: I took so long writing this that SciAm managed to come out with Transparent Bullshit Layer 2: The Lawyers Made Us Do It. At the risk of being redundant: I don’t buy that crap and wouldn’t expect anyone else with a nose to do so.
UPDATE 2014-10-14 21:30 EDT: This morning, the people in charge at Biology-Online.org took a quick look at the facts, the hammer came down fast and hard on “Ofek”, and an unhedged full apology was sent to DNLee. It is worth noting that they show very few signs of being a commercial media operation in a traditional sense. Hence: no Transparent Bullshit.
UPDATE 2014-10-14 21:40 EDT: SciAm is sticking with the lawyer line as explanation, but they did the right thing this afternoon.