On Science, Communication, Respect, and Coming Back from Mistakes

image: Marc Falardeau, (CC), Flickr

A couple of unpleasant and deeply dismaying things have happened in the science blogosphere in the past 36 hours or so. I’m posting on it, along with a growing number of other science bloggers, in order to stand in solidarity with a fellow blogger and to ensure her voice is not silenced. (If you’d like to catch up to the full story, try the Twitter hashtag #standingwithdnlee, or read this search string here. It will take a while.)

Disclosure up front: This situation involves the blog network of the magazine Scientific American, where I am a columnist and contributing editor (which is magazine jargon indicating, more or less, that they pay me a set amount of money for a certain number of columns per year). I respect the Scientific American name and feel as privileged to be associated it as I do to be here at Wired — but in this case I think the magazine has made a mistake, and I hope they reverse course.

That said, here’s what’s going on.

(This post has been updated — read to the end — and a follow-up appears here.)

One of the bloggers at the SciAm network is Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., a biologist who also writes about increasing science’s engagement with women and people of color. (Here’s her blog, The Urban Scientist — but as we’ll get to, there is something missing from that page.) On Thursday, Dr. Lee received an email from someone who represented himself as the blog editor at Biology-Online.org, which is a blog platform and aggregator, and a partner site with SciAm. The editor asked if Dr. Lee would be interested in contributing to their site. After some Q and A back and forth regarding whether this was work for pay or for free, and after hearing that there was no compensation, Dr. Lee responded:

Thank you very much for your reply.

But I will have to decline your offer.

Have a great day.

According to emails which Dr. Lee screengrabbed, here was the editor’s response:

Because we don’t pay for blog entries?

Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?

I want to just let that sink in for a minute. A professional was asked to work for no compensation. She declined politely. And was called a whore.

Now, let’s be clear: Lots of us get asked to work for free lots of the time. I probably get approached at least once a week. (For clarity: I do not blog for free at Wired; we are on contract and paid.) Sometimes we say yes, if the opportunity is right; sometimes we decline if we are overworked already or if the non-monetary compensation being offered is not aligned with whatever else we want or need to do.

But — do I really need to say this? — we are the best judges of what we can and can’t manage. We are always within our rights to say no. And we never deserve vile language because we have not matched someone else’s expectations.

So that’s the first thing that happened. Here is the second: At her SciAm blog, Dr. Lee wrote a post about the email encounter, the insult, and her completely reasonable woundedness. She said in part:

It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand.What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation? Plus, it was obvious to me that I was supposed to be honored by the request.

And at some point Friday evening, her post vanished. It was apparently taken down by Scientific American. (The quotes above are from a complete repost of Dr. Lee’s piece put up Friday night by blogger Isis the Scientist. [Update: Dr. Isis let me know that the first person to help bring attention to Dr. Lee’s situation was actually Dr. Rubidium, an analytical chemist and woman of color, in this post. Credit where due!])

We know the takedown was deliberate because Mariette DiChristina, SciAm’s editor-in-chief, confirmed the action in a tweet:

So let’s just unpack what happened. According to Dr. Lee, the only notice she received that her post was considered inappropriate was its vanishing from the blog site. SciAm did not communicate with her about it other than by the tweet above. And SciAm said nothing about the uncalled-for abuse of one of their bloggers by one of their partnership representatives.

It is worth adding here that other bloggers on the SciAm network have protested that there have never been any standards elucidated or curbs indicated on what they can write. (Small sample: NerdyChristie, KateClancy, Krystal D’Costa.) And as many other bloggers (including Maggie Koerth-Baker, Josh Witten, David Wescott, Tony Martin) pointed out, who does science, and what barriers they encounter as they try, is an integral part of the conduct of science.

As I’ve been watching over the course of the afternoon, this just keeps blowing up bigger. It has been covered by Buzzfeed, is being discussed at Metafilter — and on Twitter, tweets under the #standingwithdnlee tag are appearing in other languages, which is a pretty good indication of how widely the news is spreading. While part of that reaction, I hope, is outrage on behalf of Dr. Lee, I suspect part as well is disappointment with SciAm — a magazine that supports citizen science and getting women into science and engineering, and, manifestly, has a female editor-in-chief.

So I’m going to hope that SciAm reverses course on this. By the testimony of their other bloggers, plus the guidance those bloggers say they were given, SciAm had no justification for taking down that post. If they felt Dr. Lee’s account was inaccurate, they should have said so. If they found her language inappropriate, the better response would have been to flag the post in some manner, obscuring it with an image or temporarily replacing it with a notice — instead of creating the appearance of censorship by disappearing it entirely — while they communicated with Dr. Lee and worked with her to bring her post under whatever their standards are.

And while and even before they did that, they should have censured their partner, and made it clear that they do not support a scientist, a professional woman, any woman being called a whore ever — let alone by a representative of a site with which SciAm has a relationship.

What’s happened instead, to this point, is that SciAm has silenced a blogger, implicitly criticized her, and explicitly not criticized a partner representative who abused one of their own people. These are not smart or moral actions, and they do not reflect well on a storied and respected brand. I think that SciAm can still make this right. I hope they do.

(Some other bloggers covering this today: Sean Carroll, Kate Clancy, Janet Stemwedel, Isis’s follow-up, Anne Jefferson, Greg Laden, Dana Hunter.)

Update, Oct. 13: SciAm has posted an explanation of why they behaved in the manner they did. I’m glad they did this, though I would have preferred to see the word “apology” used. More later perhaps, but for now, read their post here.


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