The science blogosphere erupted in a furor this week, when Seed Media’s ScienceBlogs announced a new blog — Food Frontiers, a paid, sponsored blog about nutrition written by employees of PepsiCo. ScienceBlogs described the content as:
. . . a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world.
Others were less kind:
Yesterday, PepsiCo placed a full-page, semi-permanent advertorial on the ScienceBlogs network. (The Consumerist)
They aren’t going to be doing any scienceblogging — this is straight-up commercial propaganda. (PZ Meyers)
Multiple bloggers either suspended their blogs or quit ScienceBlogs altogether over their concerns that adding this blog undermined the credibility of the platform and their credibility as individual writers.
Eventually, ScienceBlogs caved under the pressure and removed Pepsi’s blog.
Did ScienceBlogs sell out to commercial interests, or was this just a continuation of what they’ve always done?
Social media in general has a history of difficulty in finding working business models. You can’t charge for content, so alternative revenue streams must pay the bills. This is less a problem for smaller, low-budget sites not run for profit, but for big, high-profile sites backed by investors, pressure mounts over time to supply the return those investors demand. Often the business model is in clear opposition to the best interests of the site’s users. Facebook is the current best example, and their recent moves toward eliminating privacy and selling user data to advertisers and others have come under scrutiny. Despite the recent uproar, Facebook activity doesn’t seem to be declining all that much, and users have weighed the balance, deciding that the service provided is useful enough to overcome the negative baggage that it brings. World of Warcraft users are facing similar issues.
This is the dilemma faced by anyone using any such service, including ScienceBlogs, and one of the real dangers in becoming completely dependent on something that’s out of your personal control. Many claim that their entire lives revolve around Facebook, that it would be impossible to quit — thus they have no options other than to acquiesce to Facebook’s new policies, regardless of their effects.
There’s great advantage in controlling your own destiny, both on a personal and a business level, and it often pays to rely on either purchased platforms or open source software that you can keep in-house and continue to use and modify without reliance on someone else. But those larger platforms come with great advantages as well. Being a blogger on ScienceBlogs means you don’t have to do any software maintenance yourself to keep the site running. ScienceBlogs pays its blog writers a small monthly percentage of advertising revenue (one wonders if Pepsi’s paid placement fees would have added to that sum). More importantly, ScienceBlogs does a tremendous job of promoting its content, and there’s great synergy between blogs on the site, as they send one another traffic. As a ScienceBlogs blogger, your writing reaches a much greater audience than it likely would if you hosted it by yourself on something like WordPress.
And the value of that traffic gets to the heart of the problem, and this is why it was hypocritical for ScienceBlog’s bloggers to have objected so strenuously. ScienbceBlogs has never been a temple of purity, free of bias or agenda. ScienceBlogs is, and has always been, an advertising platform. In the past, they’ve run sponsored blogs from Invitrogen, Shell Oil and General Electric (note: these three blogs seem to have been recently pulled from the site as well). Why were these companies acceptable where Pepsi was not?
One of ScienceBlogs’ most prolific bloggers is an employee of the Public Library of Science, and a huge amount of what he writes is advertising for their journals. Bora is an interesting and compelling writer, but many of his posts are merely copy and paste listings of papers released in PLoS journals and their abstracts. He’s using ScienceBlogs as a marketing platform for his employer, promoting their content, adding valuable links to help search engine optimization, and actually gaming PLoS’ own system for article level metrics (should it count toward an article’s benefit if it’s blogged about by the staff of the journal that published it, should copying and pasting an abstract count as a blog entry in an article’s favor?). Why is it okay for ScienceBlogs to be used as a flagrant advertising tool for one company’s products but not another’s?
Dig deeper and you’ll realize that nearly all of the blogs on ScienceBlogs are marketing tools. Ask any blogger, and if they’re honest, they’ll tell you that part of the motivation for blogging is to promote their own “personal brand.” That’s certainly a motivation for me writing for the Scholarly Kitchen — it raises my visibility and is good for my career development. Blogging is an act of self-promotion, as is so much of Web 2.0. The currently unemployed GrrlScientist notes how important her blog is to her career hopes. The relentless self-promotion is likely one of the reasons why so many scientists “register active discouragement of blogging — a form of communication that in their eyes carries no stamp of reliability or prestige.” Regardless of how successful this activity may be, why is it acceptable for scientists to use ScienceBlogs to advertise themselves, to promote their own interests and the viewpoints that directly benefit them, yet not acceptable for a corporation to do the same?
It’s particularly ironic that these complaints came from the science blogosphere, which has regularly been a bastion of support for the post-publication review philosophy promoted by journals like PLoS One. The idea is that it’s wrong for the editorial staff and peer reviewers to try to judge the value or significance of a research paper, that everything technically competent should be published, and the readers should be able to judge the quality of the work for themselves. Suddenly, that same crowd demanded a heavy editorial hand from Seed Media, asking their staff to make value judgments about what material should and shouldn’t be published. If commenting and social filtering are good enough for sorting the scientific literature, shouldn’t the same be true for blogs?
ScienceBlogs is not above criticism here — the move should have been made in a more transparent manner, and they really seem to have read their constituency wrong. From the tone of their announcement of pulling the Pepsi blog, it sounds like they’re interested in finding a more accepted manner of posting this type of content (one assumes the lure of advertising dollars is difficult to resist). Medical journals have long included similar practices, with sponsored supplements publishing papers from sponsored meetings consisting of sponsored research. In these cases though, great care is taken to point out the potential for conflicts of interest. ScienceBlogs would likely be well served by a similar policy (though realistically, it should be applied across all of their blogs, not just Pepsi’s).
ScienceBlogs does provide a great deal of entertaining and informative reading material. But ignoring the site’s commercial nature is perhaps wishful thinking. In the end, the question should not have been “How dare they?” It instead should have been, “Why haven’t you been paying attention?”