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Really, Scientific American?

12 October 2013

If you’re part of the online science community and haven’t been under a rock for the past 48 hours, you already know about the Scientific American scandal that has erupted. Here are the bare facts as I understand them: A webpage called biology online asked a biologist and postdoc named DN Lee to do a guest blogging stint. When she inquired (among other things) about the remuneration, she was told there was none, but that there might be indirect benefits. She then declined the offer. She was then called an “Urban Whore” by the contact at biology online. She posted about this on her blog at Scientific American, where she has been a professional blogger for about two years. The editors at Scientific American – who have a business relationship with biology online – deleted her blogpost, giving this as an explanation. The blogpost that Dr. Lee wrote has been mirrored in many places, including here.

Those are the facts as I understand them. You may recall that Dr. Lee was a participant in the open access debate that I also participated in for pub style science. I don’t know her personally except in that interaction and from a few exchanges on twitter.

I think we can dispense with the precipitating incident in very short order. Professionals asked to do work have the right to expect to be paid for that work. And there is no excuse for calling anyone a whore because they won’t work for you for free. Especially in the context of modern academic science – where women and minority scientists have fought and triumphed over incredible systemic obstacles, and yet continue to face discrimination, marginalization, and suffer abuse – the response of the [recruiter? editor?] at biology online stinks of sexism, racism, and unchecked entitlement. They were wrong, egregiously and unambiguously.

It’s one thing to be egregiously and unambiguously wrong. People can come back from that by apologizing and making amends. Everyone who reads my blog knows that I am big on liberating redemption. I would hope that the people at biology online could recognize their astonishing mistake and attempt to rectify it. But it is in an entirely different category for Scientific American to attempt to whitewash the incident by deleting Dr. Lee’s blogpost, and giving such an absurd, flimsy excuse for it. Their reasoning – that her post was not about scientific discovery and therefore inappropriate – is absurdly risible. They publish such posts daily.

Instead, the only conclusion I can come to is that they were hoping to minimize the incident while protecting the venture of a business partner that they presumably have some investment in or receive some revenue from (or expect to). I admit this is speculation, but no alternative explanation is immediately plausible. What this means is that Scientific American’s editors would rather attempt to defend and protect their own interests and reputation than admit they’ve associated with a business which employs someone who behaves so intolerably.

I’m baffled. If Scientific American really wanted to defend and protect their reputation, they could have said the following: “We will not tolerate this kind of behavior in our partner institutions, and are exploring how the situation can be rectified.” Now, it’s possible they took the post down because of some legal fear that hosting it could result in expensive litigation. Even then, they could easily have said: “Due to legal agreements and at the advice of our legal counsel, we reluctantly must temporarily remove this content until such time as we can ascertain our liability. This notwithstanding, we condemn in the strongest terms anyone’s use of invective or insensitive language, and stand behind our bloggers’ integrity and rights.” It would still have caused a big ruckus, but Scientific American would at least have had a leg to stand on. Maybe.

They didn’t do that. They deleted content of their own blogger and gave a laughable excuse that seems to protect misogyny and racism while abandoning Dr. Lee. It is shameful. It is disgraceful. And it is inexcusable.

Want a way back, Scientific American? Don’t try to excuse it again. Admit you made a mistake. You hung Dr. Lee out to dry while attempting to cover your own asses. Restore her content. Apologize. And then say what you will do to rectify the situation from here forward. I might start with severing ties to biology online unless they clear the rottenness from their own house.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 October 2013 20:55

    At least two other blog posts discussing this incident are on SciAm blogs. Dr. Lee’s post is the only one removed.

  2. 13 October 2013 07:54

    The response of SciAm is just baffling

  3. 13 October 2013 17:24

    Amazingly unprofessional and defamatory. I cannot believe that such name calling would be tolerated. Nor can I believe that people would whitewash over it by removal of her post. Hopefully, there will be a lot of apologizing being done.

  4. 14 October 2013 18:15

    Thanks for this. I’ve seen her post. I can’t imagine for a single second that a male scientist would have been called a “whore” for declining to do free work.

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