Science online and Science Online: A (Possible) Way Forward

image: Doctorow (CC), Flickr

I mean this post to address the convulsions in the science-writing community that arose this past week in the wake of the problems faced by writer Danielle N. Lee, PhD regarding her Scientific American blog. That situation was resolved to good effect and quickly; if you’d like to catch up on that, the posts are here and here.

(Constant Readers, bear with me. I’ll get back to scary diseases and food policy next week.)

As most in that professional community know, but other readers and members of my other networks may not, Lee’s experience inadvertently triggered a cascade of revelations in which Bora Zivkovic, the blogs editor at SciAm and a very powerful and outspoken gatekeeper in science writing, was accused of sexual harassment by an aspiring writer. (Not Lee.) Over several days, additional accusations with and without names attached tumbled around the blogosphere and Twitterverse until, on Friday, one of his bloggers — the third woman to come forward by name — published a searing account of her experience which included quotes from sexually explicit emails he had written. Within hours, he resigned from his SciAm post. (The best wrap-up is Laura Helmuth’s at Slate.)

As a SciAm columnist and contributing editor, I am grateful that Zivkovic has been separated from the magazine and institution. But I think it is important to emphasize how wide the impact of his bad behavior has been. So I want to address the continuing ripples in the community, especially surrounding the forthcoming beloved and very hot-ticket conference, Science Online, which he helped create.

In writing this and proposing some recommendations, I’m drawing on the clear and very insightful prescriptions written during the past week of turmoil by ethicist Kelly Hills, which you can read here and here. (I find Kelly’s compassionate and thoughtful tone remarkable given that Zivkovic was extraordinarily publicly rude to her last year.) I’m also drawing on my personal experience as a member of several professional organizations, including as a third-term board member of the Association of Health Care Journalists — though I am, of course, speaking only for myself and not AHCJ.

For one example of the ripple effect, there is the #ripplesofdoubt hashtag started by scientist Karen James (also Storified) to express how the introduction of sexual coercion into professional relationships destabilizes not just those relationships but also the surrounding ecosystem. For instance, Zivkovic has been accused of a pattern of targeting young, beautiful and inexperienced writers for “mentorship” that repeatedly took on a sexualized tinge, which they were unable to counter out of their lack of power in the professional relationship with him or the profession at large. But as the hashtag demonstrates, that has also led to questioning by other women (and men) whether they were not invited to blog at SciAm, or speak at ScienceOnline, because they were insufficiently humble or hot. This is a natural follow-on, but it is toxic.

Second, there have been blog and Twitter threads emerging over the past 36 hours in which additional accusations of harassment and inappropriate behavior, not by Zivkovic, have been made public by other science writers. Some of these have been launched not by the alleged harasser or victim, but by third parties trying… something: mistaken helpfulness, malice, who knows. And there are other such conversations happening in private channels, which I know because I’m enmeshed in several. These are troubling, and potentially toxic, too. Overall, I perceive in the science blogosphere (your networks may vary) a loss of security and safety; many expressions of mutual trust, but an at least equivalent number of expressions of uncertainty.

Most of these people and all of these concerns will meet at ScienceOnline, a multi-day exploration of science on the web which this year takes place at the end of February. Registration has been expected to start any day. So what should this highly influential institution — a roughly 500-person international meeting that sells out in, literally, minutes, and birthed subsidiary conferences, a year-round hashtag, and networks comprising probably tens of thousands — do next?

(Disclosure: I attended Science Online in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Because I was a presenter each year, my registration was comped, and in return I contributed to the scholarship fund to help young researchers attend. I paid my own travel.)

Recapping a little history: SciO, as it’s known, was founded in 2007 by close friends Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker; Karyn Traphagen subsequently joined them. Last year the effort was formalized into a nonprofit, with a leadership team of Traphagen as executive director, Zuiker as chairman and Zivkovic as vice-chair. (Here’s the archived version of the leadership page, which was edited this week.) Last Wednesday, Traphagen and Zuiker announced that Zivkovic had stepped down from the team, and also announced they had formed a board with a third member, journalist and longtime web-communities builder Scott Rosenberg.

Their announcement said: “Bora Zivkovic has voluntarily resigned from the ScienceOnline Board of Directors. The Board is reviewing Bora’s future role in the organization.” It was made before the last set of revelations about Zivkovic’s actions and before his departure from SciAm and hasn’t yet been updated.

So, here are my thoughts.

Following on Hills’ recommendation: SciO should separate Zivkovic from the organization completely and permanently, as an organizer and as an attendee. I recommend this not just to remove the threat that his attested-to behavior would be repeated, but also to make sure that his behavior is not inextricably linked to the meeting from now on. Zivkovic was the most enthusiastic evangelist for SciO and its most public greeter. To retain trust, SciO needs to shed this shadow.

SciO should quickly build out its board. I understand (Ben Lillie of The Story Collider kindly filled me in) that at small nonprofits, small boards are more normal, compared for instance to the 12-member board I belong to. Even acknowledging that, three people — two of them founders and at least one a close friend — is too small. Five might be good; and for the same reason as above, it would be better that the remaining two not have close ties to Zivkovic.

SciO should consider recruiting a group of community advisors. Boards of directors have a lot of priorities, from setting policy to handling fundraising; but as a community, the larger Science Online network has one chief priority right now, and that is processing not just the transgressions of its founder but also the ongoing distress and disagreement over power differentials and gender disparities in science and journalism. This group should find an organized way to gather thoughts and impressions from the community about next steps and make a report to the board before the next conference takes place.

SciO should foreground these issues at its spring conference. SciO is a several-day meeting, its schedule is always packed, and for every session that makes it onto the schedule, dozens are rejected. (Here are the suggestions for next spring.) Nevertheless: I recommend that SciO take a half-day at the beginning of the next conference to fully air all of these issues, perhaps in an opening plenary followed by breakout sessions. The focus should be not just rehearsing the transgressions — though some airing of people’s sense of betrayal is inevitable and necessary —  but exploring the larger issues and, crucially, finding strategies for moving forward. SciO doesn’t need to be a meeting about harassment and power; but if it doesn’t deal with those issues up front, it risks having the entire meeting haunted by them.

Crucially, SciO should tap the wisdom of its vast crowd. The SciO community is, for the most part, egalitarian, thoughtful, and very talkative. I already see (in Twitter streams that are so diverse and fast-moving it’s very challenging to follow them all) that people are talking about buddy systems, and alcohol-free social spaces at conferences, and  considerations of the vulnerability of freelancers who exist outside traditional human-resources structures. This is a great sign of recovery from the previous days’ shocks, and it should be encouraged — and someone should take on the job of stashing for retrieval all the ideas that are bubbling up.

I go to a lot of conferences, as a board director, member or speaker. SciO is unique in my experience for its diversity and energy and for the fierce joy its participants take in coming together and staying in touch. It would be a shame if that were lost — but given the events of the last week and the reactions to them, I do believe SciO is at risk. As a result, though, SciO has an extraordinary opportunity to remake itself — and if it does that well, it could set a model for other conferences to follow. I hope it succeeds.

(Thanks to Ed Yong, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Maia Szalavitz, Seth Mnookin, Carl Zimmer, John Timmer, Jennifer Ouellette, David Dobbs, Virginia Hughes and some others who preferred not to be named for helping me think through this. If you disagree or agree, though, you should just react to me.)


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