Scandal Sheet (1952 film)
Scandal Sheet (1952 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In something of a blast from the past, the world of science blogging reared up in collective anger over Scientific American’s censorship of a controversial post from a paid blogger, written in response to some awful behavior from a representative of one of SciAm’s business partners. This may seem familiar to anyone who lived through the rise and fall of the first round of science blogging platforms and provides ample evidence that though things may have evolved, the same inherent conflicts between bloggers and platform providers remain.

To sum things up briefly, one of SciAm’s bloggers was asked to do some unpaid writing for SciAm’s partner platform, Biology-Online.com. When she declined, the representative from Biology-Online made a wholly inappropriate remark in response, which the blogger then made public through a subsequent SciAm blog posting.

SciAm, in perhaps a CYA overreaction, deleted the post, calling it “not appropriate”, later explaining that they did so over legal concerns and that the ability to do so was part of the terms agreed to by their bloggers.  This prompted a firestorm of criticism from the blogosphere, and offered an opportunity to analyze the continuing problems with sexism and racism both in science and society at large. SciAm was left in a difficult position, stuck between trying to prudently protect their business from potential libel claims while at the same time trying to protect their image in the community as an upright citizen, rather than an enabler of problematic behavior.

This delicate balance between commercial platforms and the bloggers who populate them is nothing new.

For a brief period, science blogs seemed on the cusp of a new wave of Web 2.0 approaches certain to remake the way scientists communicate. That would have represented the “peak of inflated expectations” phase of the Gartner hype cycle. What happened then is that the major blogging networks fragmented over various “scandals”, mostly resulting from efforts by the network owners to try earn some money from their efforts (with some of those efforts proving less ethically sound than others). The diaspora seemed to break the building momentum of science blogging.

It’s perhaps telling that the first colleague I mentioned the SciAm controversy to responded with, “Science blogging? That’s still a thing?” The Nature Network is a sparsely populated graveyard, the blogs gonethe forums overrun by spammers and scammers looking to sell knockoff designer goods and fake passports (does anyone from Nature actually look at what’s being advertised under their name these days?). Science Blogs, surprisingly, still seems to exist under its own banner, despite being bought years ago by National Geographic.

That purchase gives a clue as to what really happened to science blogging–it was co-opted and absorbed by traditional media. Newspapers and magazines have been under intense pressure for years (decades?) to cut corners and reduce costs. Among the first employees deemed expendable were the science reporters–it’s not like science is something important after all, like horoscopes, sports scores or relationship advice.

What science blogging has provided is a cheap replacement for all the content lost with the demise of the practice of professional science journalism. Why pay professional writers or maintain a staff of journalists when there’s an army of writers out there churning this stuff out for free? And so the independent voices morphed into the underpaid staff, filling the pages of the new blog platform overlords (same as the old media overlords) with content of varying quality.

That variance is one of the downsides here. The Guardian, for example, hosts some great blogs but also seems willing to let anyone who volunteers put up a post. Anything to drive quantity, the more pages filled, the more ad space available. The main upside is that it means there’s still some science content going out to the mainstream audience. Take away the inexpensive bloggers and many media outlets might never mention science at all.

That’s how most of us encounter science blogs these days, as the occasional article appearing via a major publication’s website, with all the trappings of a formal opinion column. Which is why it perhaps seems a bit strange to continue to see the same ongoing conflict:  business acting in the interests of business vs. bloggers burning down the buildings when their freedoms are restricted.

Bloggers still see themselves as independent voices using a platform, which is meant to offer a blank slate upon which they are free to express themselves. Publications see bloggers as paid contributors, subject to the same editorial oversight as any other articles published. Bloggers insist on the freedom to say anything they want. Publishers have valuable assets to protect in their brands and reputations and want to carefully craft the image they’re portraying.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Go back and re-read posts on the ScienceBlogs Pepsi problem, or the Nature Network’s implosion and you can pretty much cut and paste in the details of this most recent scandal. The lessons remain the same:

For bloggers, if you’re cashing The Man’s paychecks, you play by The Man’s rules. There is recognition and perhaps prestige, along with at least some minimal level of pay, that comes from aligning yourself with a major publishing brand. In return, you are, at some point, going to see your freedom challenged by the need of your employer to make money and protect assets and image.

For the publisher, bloggers do offer a tremendously cost-effective means of generating content. But at some point, they’re going to turn on you. It’s the very nature of a deliberately personalized medium where the author calls the shots. Proceed at your own risk.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

Discussion

12 Thoughts on "A New Science Blogging Scandal: Deja Vu All Over Again"

David, Five years ago science blogging was touted as the replacement for the vacuum left when newspapers and magazines started laying off their professional science journalists. Journals like Nature devoted countless features and columns on the future of science communication (e.g. http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090318/full/458274a.html). You were skeptical then and your perspective hasn’t changed.

Do you think that science blogging will continue down this new precarious and unstable relationship between bloggers and their media partners, or do you think this trend will pass and we’ll move back toward a combination of fulltime professional science journalists and a growing cadre of freelance (paid) writers? The one future that hasn’t arrived–although may hoped it would–was a world where scientists spent much of their own time translating and promoting their own work through popular media.

Phil, I know your question is directed at David, but I’m going to jump in with a couple of comments of my own:

Do you think that science blogging will continue down this new precarious and unstable relationship between bloggers and their media partners, or do you think this trend will pass and we’ll move back toward a combination of fulltime professional science journalists and a growing cadre of freelance (paid) writers?

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t have to choose between those two options. There’s a distinct possibility that the precarious and unstable relationship between bloggers and hosts will fall apart, and that we also may never see the return of professional science journalism (beyond a few boutique examples). I think David’s comments here hit the nail, sadly, on the head:

Newspapers and magazines have been under intense pressure for years (decades?) to cut corners and reduce costs. Among the first employees deemed expendable were the science reporters–it’s not like science is something important after all, like horoscopes, sports scores or relationship advice.

We would all like newspapers and magazines to focus on providing information that’s important and that is in the public’s best interest. The problem is, if they don’t provide what the public is willing to pay to read, they go out of business. My fear is that there may simply not be sufficient public interest in real science journalism to keep real science journalists employed full-time. I hope that fear will prove unfounded.

I think that sponsored material will become increasingly prevalent. I have already seen reporters at Salon and other venues mistake the press release aggregator Science Daily for a news service (perhaps confusing it with Science News?). I see universities rebranding their press offices as “news offices” and presenting their press releases as news stories. News sponsored by scientific societies doesn’t seem so bad — the society has an interest in spreading high quality, fact-checked information, and their press officers (like myself) are typically dedicated science writers with more time to research and write stories than daily news reporters. But the society or university also has an interest in promoting itself. Press officers, even press officers who used to be reporters, cannot be as skeptical as reporters, and cannot take their stories in uncomfortable directions for the society. They have to please the scientists and they have to please their organization. So I think science communication loses something in this scenario, even if the quality of the scientific information is pretty good.

I do not see that this is about science blogging per se. Blog articles are opinion pieces not news items and this tension between opinion and publisher has always existed. I am sure Huffington Post has the same issues.

Nor is it about pay. We Kitchen chefs do not get paid (at least I do not) but I still run my drafts pass the Editor, where on more than one occasion I have been asked to tone it down, which I willingly did. SciAm’s goof was to post then pull which is always a bad practice.

The interesting question is whether opinion is better than news, given that all news is opinionated?

The two stories are related in that the incident I mentioned in the post above led the person in your linked story to come forward.

Notwithstanding all the comments about the shrinkage of science coverage in traditional media, there is still great value in publishers’ promoting the science they publish via press releases distributed on their own platforms or via pay-to-post services like EurekAlert.org, Newswise, and others. A good release about good science will still get picked up by traditional outlets like newspapers, science bloggers, etc.

Ah, the old bait-and-switch column all over again. Start with something that is newsworthy and then switch onto the old hobby horse one loves to ride.

First on the controversy. It lit up not only the blogaspehere (I do not have a blog) but also the listserv of the National Association of Science Writers. Second, the person who made the very offensive comment was a new hire at Biology-Online who was subsequently fired for the unprofessional comment he made.

So, inadvertently, I guess you prove your point, blogs such as this are for opinion, not reporting the facts.

Sorry you’re unhappy with what I wrote. It’s not really clear to me why though. One would think that a headline including the Yogi Berra quote “Deja Vu All Over Again” would tip one off that the article was likely to revisit a previous theme, rather than leaving the reader feeling tricked.

First on the controversy. It lit up not only the blogaspehere (I do not have a blog) but also the listserv of the National Association of Science Writers.

Good to know. Links would be great for our readers who are interested. It also was noticed by more mainstream outlets such as the link in Angela’s comment above. None of which negates the existence of the response from the science blogosphere.

Second, the person who made the very offensive comment was a new hire at Biology-Online who was subsequently fired for the unprofessional comment he made.

Again, good to know, but not necessarily relevant to the point I was trying to make. The issue wasn’t the way the companies handled the employee, it was the approach SciAm took toward initially censoring then vetting the information.

So, inadvertently, I guess you prove your point, blogs such as this are for opinion, not reporting the facts.

Not really my point at all, though yes, this is meant as an opinion piece (though the facts in it are, as far as I know, accurate). The point was the continuing disconnect between two types of media that have merged.

“That purchase gives a clue as to what really happened to science blogging–it was co-opted and absorbed by traditional media.”

Well, no. Some specific blog networks were absorbed by traditional media. But the bulk of science blogs (including my own) remain independen — in part because of incidents like the recent SciAm censorship.

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