Follow-up: On Clarity, Dignity, Apologies and Moving Forward

image: Snigl3t (CC), Flickr

This is a follow-up to my post over the weekend on the #StandingwithDNLee situation that enveloped Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., her blog at Scientific American, SciAm’s partner organizations, and — by extension — the many thousands of people who expressed support for her. While the situation is sure to have a long tail, some significant things happened Sunday and Monday, so I want to update and note those to close the loop. (If this story is new to you, have a look at my last post.)

In chronological order:

  • Scientific American posted an explanation (though not, publicly, an apology), alleging that legal concerns caused Dr. Lee’s post  — exploring her reaction to verbal abuse by an editor at an organization which SciAm listed as a partner — to be taken down within an hour of its being published.
  •, whose blog editor verbally abused Dr. Lee in the process of asking her to work for free, announced that that editor had been fired, and unreservedly apologized to Dr. Lee.
  • Dr. Lee’s post at Scientific American was restored with an editor’s note.

If that’s what you needed to catch up, that’s the news in a nutshell. Out of many, many blog reactions (some curated here by Liz Ditz; 13,600 indexed by Google), I recommend these posts by Kate Clancy, Dr. Isis, Janet Stemwedel, Melanie Tannenbaum and Daniel Lende. If on the other hand you think all this coverage was more than the situation warranted, you might prefer Scott Huler’s post.

That’s the quick round-up. More details and some final thoughts to follow.

The first offense in this situation, dating back to last week, was the abuse directed at Dr. Lee by “Ofek,” who represented himself as an employee of the site Biology-Online and approached Dr. Lee to write for them, having been drawn to her work by her posts at SciAm. When she asked politely if she could be paid for these guest posts, his response — playing off the title of her blog “The Urban Scientist” — was, “Are you an urban scientist, or an urban whore?” was mostly silent over the weekend except for a note posted by a forum editor promising to look at the situation as quickly as their distributed staff could be brought together virtually. When that happened, the response was quick; on Sunday, Dr. Lee received this note:

So that deals with the first issue, the insult to Dr. Lee. The second — SciAm’s removal of her post without warning or explanation to her, under a standard that seemed to shift over the weekend and seemed unclear to the other bloggers — takes a little more time to unpack.

Time for the disclosure-conflict reminder: At SciAm, I am a columnist and contributing editor (which means I am under contract to deliver a certain number of columns per year for a set fee). However — and I should have said this in my first post — I have not been a participant in any private staff discussions about this situation. Notably, I am not a member of the back-channel that the SciAm editor(s)/blog editor(s) use to communicate with its bloggers. Also, to be clear, I appreciate being associated with the Scientific American name, so what I’ve said in my last post and this one is out of hopes the organization can do better.

OK: Here is the explanation which SciAm posted, under the signature of editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina. (With apologies to fair-use standards, I think it will be easier if I quote the whole thing.):

Scientific American bloggers lie at the heart of the SA website, pumping vitality, experience and broad insight around the community. Unfortunately our poor communication with this valuable part of the SA network over the recent days has led to concerns, misunderstandings and ill feelings, and we are committed to working to try to put this right as best we can.

We know that there are real and important issues regarding the treatment of women in science and women of color in science, both historically and currently, and are dismayed at the far too frequent cases in which women face prejudice and suffer inappropriate treatment as they strive for equality and respect. We recently removed a blog post by Dr. Danielle Lee that alleged a personal experience of this nature. Dr. Lee’s post pertained to personal correspondence between her and an editor at Biology-Online about a possible assignment for that network. Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post. Although we regret that this was necessary, a publisher must be able to protect its interests and Scientific American bloggers are informed that we may remove their blog posts at any time when they agree to blog for us. In removing the post, we were in no way commenting upon the substance of the post, but reflecting that the underlying facts were not confirmed.

We deeply regret that we were not able to communicate our decision to Dr. Lee before removing the post on a late Friday afternoon before a long weekend. We recognize that it would have been better to fully explain our position before its removal, but the circumstances were such that we could not make that happen in a timely way.

We would like to make clear that Biology-Online is neither a part of Scientific American, nor a “content partner.” We are investigating what links we currently have with Biology-Online. We intend to take further action, but due to the timing of this situation and our need to investigate the facts further, we cannot provide additional information at this point. We commit to updating you as we progress.

Juggling holiday-weekend commitments with family, lack of signal and a dying phone, alongside the challenges of reaching colleagues over a holiday weekend, I attempted to at least address initial social-media queries about the matter with a tweet yesterday: “Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” I acknowledge that microblogs are not the ideal medium for such an important explanation to our audiences and regret the delay in providing a fuller response. My brief attempt to clarify, posted with the belief that “saying something is better than saying nothing,” clearly had the opposite effect. With 20/20 hindsight, I wish I had simply promised a fuller reply when I was able to be better connected and more thorough.

We take very seriously the issues that are faced by women in science and women of color in science. As a woman who has worked in science publishing for more than 20 years, I can add that we intend to discuss how we can better investigate and publicize such problems in general and search for solutions with Dr. Lee and with the wider scientific community. With the help of Dr. Lee as an author, Scientific American plans to provide a thoroughly reported feature article about the current issues facing women in science and the related research in the coming weeks. I am personally grateful to Dr. Lee for her support in these endeavors and am looking forward to working with her on these issues.

To anyone who has been in the media, this is clearly the language of lawyering: not specifying, not admitting and not apologizing. (I have been sent a version that I am told was circulated internally to the bloggers, which included an apology to them. If that is in fact what the bloggers received, then that the paragraph was not included in the public version is probably also due to legal concerns; still, it’s nice it was said.) For what it’s worth, SciAm belongs to Nature Publishing Group, based in the UK; which belongs to MacMillan Publishing, based in the UK; which belongs to Holtzbrink Publishing Group, a family company based in Germany. European press law is quite different from the US code.

So, there are some important admissions in this, which started to move the debate forward, and also some fails. For discussion (of miscontruing the problem as “personal,” when Dr. Lee was being attacked professionally; not flagging/obscuring the post; not contacting Dr. Lee at the time of takedown), take a look at the 100 comments so far on editor DiChristina’s post and the several hundred at Jezebel.

Good news, within and subsequently: Dr. Lee received a work assignment out of this; SciAm’s pay rate is very good in the industry. Dr. Lee’s concern for the position of women and people of color in science — which is what she said  along she wanted to have as a focus rather than the attack on her — will get a major-media airing. And, finally, once Biology-Online provided the confirmation of the email exchange that SciAm said they were seeking, Dr. Lee got her post back.

The conversation around all of this is no doubt going to continue for a while. In that, there are a few things that I wish SciAm would consider, going forward:

Stay in touch. As Laura Helmuth of Slate tweeted yesterday, “There is no such thing as a weekend. Publishers must respond/fire/fix pronto.” SciAm is already global, and because it worked to build this blog platform, it is now also globally 24/7. That means someone with decision-making ability ought to be available to speak 24/7 as well. I am certainly not saying that no one can take a weekend off with their family, nor that it is forbidden to go off the grid — but a chain of spokesmanship ought to be worked out now. Someday it will be needed again.

Articulate more-clear standards for the bloggers. Clearly many of them — there are 65, if I am counting correctly from the dropdown on this page — were confused over the weekend over what does, and does not, count as  either too personal, or otherwise too exposed in a legal sense, to be blogged about.

Consider adding journalistic liaisons for the bloggers. Implicit in the notion of standards is that they are journalistic, and journalistic-legal, because SciAm is a journalism enterprise. However, most of its journalism is behind subscription paywalls, so the bloggers in many ways function as SciAm’s public face. Most of the bloggers are not journalists, and don’t construe themselves to be.  This suggests to me there may be a knowledge gap between what journalists take for granted — we all get training in press and defamation law at some point — and what the bloggers know or have been coached in.

With a blog platform so large, there is no way SciAm can review in advance what its bloggers plan to say, without frustrating the entire point of rapid online communication. (In addition, as Andrew Seaman of Reuters raised over the weekend, the evolving US law on blogging makes publishers of online content more liable for the content to the degree that they edit it more.) SciAm isn’t the first weighty media brand with ferocious fact-checking of its print product to stumble as it extends that brand online; it happened at the New Yorker also, though for very different reasons. The New Yorker’s online side recently added an additional editor. SciAm isn’t the New Yorker; its blog set-up and aims are different. Still, perhaps it could could make available to its bloggers a little additional help.


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