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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Scientific American faces firestorm after removing blog post about scientist being called a whore

with 41 comments

dnlee

Danielle Lee, via Twitter

We tend to stick to retractions in the peer-reviewed literature here at Retraction Watch, although we’ve made exceptions. Today’s post seemed like a good reason to make another exception, because while Nature Publishing Group-owned Scientific American is not a peer-reviewed journal, the science blogosphere and Twitter are lighting up this weekend with strong reactions to the magazine’s removal of a blog post by biologist Danielle Lee.

The incident was first noted by Dr. Rubidium, who wrote yesterday:

Scientist and science communicator @DNLee5 declined an offer to blog for free from biology-online.org and got called a ‘whore’.  @DNLee5 posted a thoughtful response on her Scientific American‘s blog ’The Urban Scientist‘.  A short time later, her response vanished

(You can read Lee’s original post on Dr. Isis’s blog.)

Yesterday morning, Scientific American editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina responded on Twitter:

Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.

(Some disclosures: Ivan was the managing editor, online, at Scientific American from 2008 to 2009, and reported to DiChristina for some of that period. He was also invited by Lee to be part of a panel at the National Association of Black Journalists conference this past summer.)

In response to some of those questions, DiChristina said that the magazine’s partnership with Biology Online did not play a role in the decision to remove the post:

@hannahjwaters @sciam @BoraZ @DNLee5 “Partner” connection not a factor.

Later in the day, DiChristina gave BuzzFeed more details:

I’d like to elaborate on the original brief statement on Twitter that this blog fell outside Scientific American’s mission to communicate science. While we interpret that mission with a lot of latitude, Dr. Lee’s post went beyond and verged into the personal, and that’s why it was taken down. Dr. Lee’s post is out extensively in the blogosphere, which is appropriate. Dr. Lee is a valued member of the Scientific American blog network. In a related matter, Biology Online has an ad network relationship, and not an editorial one. Obviously, Scientific American does not want to be associated with activities that are detrimental to the productive communication of science. We are pursuing next steps.

Maryn McKenna, a WIRED blogger and Scientific American columnist (not to mention friend of Ivan’s), wrote that she hopes the magazine reverses itself:

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.

McKenna also notes many other bloggers writing about the situation: Sean Carroll, Kate Clancy, Janet Stemwedel, Isis’s follow-up, Anne Jefferson, Greg Laden, and Dana Hunter.

Update, 3 p.m. Eastern, 10/13: As noted by a commenter below, DiChristina has published a more detailed explanation at Scientific American. Excerpt:

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.

Update, 8 a.m. Eastern, 10/14: As another commenter notes, Biology Online has now apologized to Lee and fired Ofek. Excerpt:

We would like to express our sincerest apologies to Danielle N. Lee (DNLee) and anyone else who may have been offended by the way our recently hired employee, Ofek, handled the conversation with her. Ofek’s behaviour was completely out of line and after gathering the facts we immediately terminated his employment. Ofek failed to show the respect and prudent behavior expected of him as a contributor to Biology Online.

Update 6 a.m. Eastern, 10/15: Lee’s post is back at Scientific American‘s site.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

October 13, 2013 at 10:44 am

41 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Brian M. Lucey and commented:
    So, its apparently ok to call someone a whore for NOT working for free for your commercial blogging enterprise. This is interesting to me for two reasons. First, its simply inappropriate for someone to call out a person as a whore. There is far too much incivility in online discourse. People say things online, even in direct ‘face to face’ online communications, which they would (we hope) never dream of saying in real life. As to the germ of the issue… Dr Lee was asked to do some blogging, she asked whether and how much remuneration was involved, and declined on hearing ‘nuttin’. Then she gets called a whore (which is odd as if she was doing things just for money…). But why do commercial blogs and online commerce organizations think they can freeride on academics? A few months ago I was asked to do a monthly online one hour virtual meeting room with clients of an investment bank. I asked “how much” and the answer was zippydoozero. I declined and as per here they whined on about how great an exposure it would be for me.
    Companies : you operate in a commercial environment. That doesn’t end when you ask Prof Pointyhead to work for you.

    brianmlucey

    October 13, 2013 at 10:55 am

  2. Well guys you’ve been tolerating SciAm (and Nature’s) attitude to denigrate, deny space, infantilize and insult anybody questioning their perceived Truth regarding climate and energy. No wonder they felt empowered to do the same in another area, starting of course with the weakest possible target, a woman who had been called the secondmost pejorative word in the English language (the other starts with c and it’s not by chance they’re both related to women).

    It’s always the same story: the appalling silence of the good people and all that. “First they came for the Jews” and all that. As Isis says, it’s a matter of truth, honesty and integrity: and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

    http://omnologos.com/dear-scientific-american-an-open-letter/

    omnologos

    October 13, 2013 at 11:22 am

    • This is a complete non-sequitur. But you might note that Retraction Watch hasn’t disappeared your insulting comment.

      Ken Pimple

      October 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      • Ken – your comment makes no sense. I explicitly included Ivan among the “good guys”.

        omnologos

        October 13, 2013 at 12:13 pm

        • Are we reading the same post? As I read it, you accuse Retraction Watch of “tolerating” of denigration, infantilization, and insulting, and that their doing so “empowered” Science American to censor the blog entry in question.

          What am I missing here? Is there a hidden tone of irony? Of are the “guys” you are insulting not Retraction Watch, but someone else? Really, I don’t get it.

          Ken Pimple

          October 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm

          • you are missing the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I quoted him partially, try googling for “mlk appalling silence”.

            omnologos

            October 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm

          • It looks like there are only four levels of replies; I hope this makes sense where it shows up.

            omnologos – I did recognize the reference to Martin Niemöller’s statement about “first they came for the Jews,” but Dr. King’s statement on “appalling silence” doesn’t ring a bell.

            All I can say is that your first paragraph implies that Retraction Watch is as bad as Scientific American, and the second seems to be saying that Retraction Watch is specifically NOT one of the good guys.

            Who are the “guys” you mention in the first two words of your original comment?

            Ken Pimple

            October 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm

            • Ken – no need to bother dwelling on the MLK reference if you don’t get and can’t even find it. I repeat: RW is obviously made by honest and trustworthy and genuine people who unfortunately, as referred by the good Reverend, have been silent in the past about SciAm’s drift away from honesty and trustworthiness, probably because they had passing or zero interest in the climate/energy debate. However since I have been participating in that debate for a long time, I am not surprised by the disappearance of an inconvenient post.

              Had SciAm really been interested in preserving its reputation as a haven for science discussions (as if science blogging and communication were not science discussions themselves) the original post would have been linked to, rather than removed from the aether.

              omnologos

              October 13, 2013 at 2:11 pm

          • It seems the “guys” that omnologous accuses of “toleration” of the supposed monstrous deeds he ascribes to SciAm are everyone who doesn’t share his opinions on climate science.

            SciAm are in a slight pickle here, and they quite likely have acted in good faith. As SciAm’s DiChristina says, Dr. Lee’s deleted log post is reproduced elsewhere on the Web; it’s no-doubt getting far more publicity than it might otherwise have got. The bad “guy” here is ofek@biology-online.org who has been well and truly hoist on his own petard by Dr. Lee! Once the heat and accusations subside this should have quite a positive outcome all round (good for Dr. Lee; bad for Mr ofek).

            chris

            October 13, 2013 at 5:07 pm

          • omnologos – Thank you for the clarification.

            Ken Pimple

            October 14, 2013 at 11:51 am

    • This comment looks like #19 of The 29 Stages Of A Twitterstorm:

      19. People start using the bad thing as an excuse to talk about their own pet issues. Again.

      neurocritic

      October 14, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      • thank you neurocritic. I am looking forward to the birth of the new science, internet-based telepsychiatry.

        omnologos

        October 14, 2013 at 6:09 pm

  3. Good grief! Its http://www.biology-online.org/blog/ that I would put top of my ‘don’t bother with exploiters’ list

    Apparently DnLee decline an offer to blog for free, and got called a whore for standing up for her professional right to decide whether she wants to be paid for her work.

    Publisher and research organisation, including governments’, exploitation of work of experts in the form of reviewing or contributing for free because it is ‘a honour’ or ‘will advance your career’ is rife and deplorabel.

    Well done DNLee for standing up to this bullying

    Best

    Diana

    dianakornbrot

    October 13, 2013 at 12:11 pm

  4. I couldn’t quite follow this episode. Who called her a “whore” and was this in an email or on the phone or what?

    CarolynS

    October 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm

      • Actually I might just add there is someone identified in that link as the culprit. There is zero real evidence presented that this (real) person is the infamous “Ofek”, so if you do bother to read it, treat that claim with complete scepticism at this stage.

        I just liked responses of “honee_v” as she pleaded to at least wait for Monday for it to be sorted out.

        little grey rabbit

        October 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    • Yes, this post is dreadfully written and quite ambiguous unless you’re already familiar with the episode.

      Bobo2

      October 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm

  5. This is of course going to be spun to make it appear sexism-related. As best as I can tell though, it’s not. Although obviously inexcusable in professional discourse, the editor was almost certainly using “whore” as a generic insult for money-grubber; he/she would likely have used the same term toward a man.

    Bobo2

    October 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    • Bobo2 – Women bloggers regularly encounter perils. This is a real issue.

      omnologos

      October 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    • Eeehh… this is a serious problem for women bloggers. It has been pretty well exposed for at least a year, if not longer. He or she probably would have NOT used the term towards a man.

      John

      October 14, 2013 at 6:28 am

      • “Probably” is neither evidence nor fact. It’s totally unnecessary to snowball a rude and insulting choice of rhetorical question into a gender equality issue just for added shock and awe. Be responsible with bubbling sexist outrage.

        anon

        October 14, 2013 at 8:37 am

        • Again, this is a major problem that has been extensively written about in the media. But hey, lets just ignore the problem because it might add shock and awe.

          John

          October 14, 2013 at 11:26 am

        • Hello? “Whore” – not sexist? Seriously? Like the various epithets that mean female genitalia, “whore” is sexist EVEN WHEN it’s used of a man.

          Ophelia Benson

          October 14, 2013 at 2:29 pm

          • Men can be prostitutes too. There is no sexism inherent in the term.

            Bobo2

            October 14, 2013 at 6:35 pm

  6. Scientific American has a new explanation up for why the removed the post (link below). The editor says they took the blog post down for “legal reasons” because they could not quickly verify the facts in the post. Legal reasons may be an appopriate reason to take a post down temporarily, but a few things make it seem less than completely accurate. 1) If they’d asked, a forwarded email or two would probably have helped them verify most, if not all, of the facts in the post pretty quickly. 2) This is not the reason previously described in a twitter post by the editor — maybe they were both true, but that’s not how it’s described in the post. 3) They say they didn’t have time to notify her, but an email takes a minute or two.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/at-scientific-american/2013/10/13/a-message-from-mariette-dichristina-editor-in-chief/

    C

    October 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm

  7. Ivan, Dr Rubidium and others have got this one spot on and Scientific American need to look hard at how they deal with people. They are clearly not treating all the same.

    Dave Fernig

    October 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm

  8. Thanks for this.

    I am not particularly impressed with Ms. DiChristina’s crisis management skills or professionalism in this whole thing. The first tweet (“The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.”) appears to be counter-factual based on the longer explanation today.

    If, yesterday morning, she had just published (blog post, tweet, whatever) something along the lines of

    “We value Dr. Lee’s contribution to SciAm. Her allegations about the conduct of a Biology-Online.org employee are, if true, appalling. However, her most recent post raised legal issues we could not adequately resolve before the close of business Friday, and therefore I ordered it removed. I did so before I could communicate with Dr. Lee, which I regret. The issue will be addressed further when we open for business on Tuesday.”

    the whole furor would have been tempered.

    I am keeping a list of blogospheric reactions to #IstandwithDNLee at Standing with DNLee against sexism at biology-online.org, and Scientific American’s cowardly conduct, and I’ve added this post.

    Liz Ditz (@lizditz)

    October 13, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    • My personal experience on the Jeff Beall blog (www.scholarlyoa.com), which highlights problems in the open access publishing world, is of equal concern, and no less painful by that being experienced by Danielle Lee. Despite posting numerous insightful critiques of the major publishers such as Elsevier or Springer, even if they publish open access journals, 100% of my comments have been immediately deleted. In doing so, Mr. Beall is exercising discrimination. His lawyer stays silent and the university authorities at the University of Colorado Denver, stay mum. For exmaple, the latest story on the Beall blog critics, in extremely severe terms (even if valid) a publisher called GSTF. However, there is one small problem. GSTF is a print journal, not open access. When I criticized Beall for not equally criticizing other leading publishers like Elsevier, Spriner, Wiley or Taylor and Francis, especially where there is equal evidence of poor academic quality control, what happened to my blog entry? It was wiped out in less than 30 minutes. The same has happened to over 12 comments I have posted on that blog over the past several months, most likely in retaliation for personal differences of opinion. In other words, the Beall blog moderation does not exist, is biased and is discriminatory. At least in my experience. So, why is there no outrage as there has been for Danielle Lee? In contrast, RW deserves praise because even though bloggers’ comments can sometimes be quite strong or biased, the moderators try to be as fair as possible to allow free speech. Calling a female scientists a “whore” should not have been allowed to be posted in the first place. I don’t think this says anything about the bloggers. Rather, I think it says tons about the blog moderation policies and practice. Anyone has the right to express themselves since blogs are the modern equivalent of Roman forums, but only when there is proof, and without being insulting. Bloggers should be held accountable, but so, too should blog sites and their managers or owners. Bloggers can be red flagged, but not banned. Equally, blog sites should be carefully scrutinized, but not banned. Free speech advances understanding. Bias and discrimination do not.

      JATdS

      October 13, 2013 at 6:57 pm

  9. OK, hold on here, this RW article makes very little sense without more context. If I have it right,
    1. Biology online asked Dr. Lee to blog on their site for free.
    2. She said no.
    3. Biology online called her a bad sexist name.
    4. Dr. Lee took to the SciAm blog (where she must have had a previous blogging relationship, possibly paid) and called out Biology Online.
    5. SciAm said “please don’t use our blog for your personal issues” and took the entry down.

    So why is SciAm the bad guy? It’s their blog and their rules, and if they have an agreement or contract with Dr. Lee for the publication of interesting science, it seems they entirely reasonable that they not want their blog used for personal conflict. I don’t blame Dr. Lee for using the microphone she was given, but it’s SciAm’s right to control the content on their blog. And no, taking down the post is not the same as endorsing the terrible comments made by someone at Biology Online.org.

    StrongDreams

    October 13, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    • StrongDreams – as I hinted before there is even more context to consider. Many women bloggers have reported how difficult their life can be made by other netizens, especially men of course, with a deluge of offensive sexist remarks as soon as the blogger dare writing anything remotely suggesting a thinking brain is behind the blog. Others have been physically assaulted/molested/threatened even at bloggers conferences. I believe SciAm has hosted or linked in the past to a blog post outlining these problems.

      The idea to hatchet off then a new blog post reporting a new case of the same issue, sounds beyond contempt. I’m still not sure what was so terrible in it for them, forcing an excuse rectified then by yet another excuse. They had a million ways to handle the situation (including the not-so-far-fetched idea that bloggers at SciAm write what they think, and not what SciAm wants them to think…IIRC there is such a disclaimer already).

      Add to that the stench of one ongoing commercial relationship, and the ethical hodgepodge is served.

      omnologos

      October 13, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    • Why is SciAm the bad guy? Apart from the inappopriate censorship — this is not personal conflict, this is reporting about a bad organization — SciAm is treating “biology online”, the very bad organization involved, as if it is a credible organization:

      https://w1.buysub.com/pubs/SC/SCA/BiOonline_SCA_noprem.jsp?cds_page_id=48159&cds_mag_code=SCA&id=1381719775094&lsid=32862202550021749&vid=1

      SciAm’s response was unprofessional, bluntly.

      Nathanael

      October 13, 2013 at 11:04 pm

  10. SciAm’s action makes sense.

    They hired her to blog about science, not any time she was treated unfairly.

    Jax

    October 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    • Reporting that an organization called “Biology Online” was unsuitable for scientists to work with — that’s a valuable and appropriate thing for Scientific American to report on. SciAm’s behavior was not acceptable. If the initial response had been “This post raises legal issues which we cannot address immediately”, that would have been entirely different.

      Nathanael

      October 13, 2013 at 11:05 pm

  11. Is it allowable to call a scientist a whore? Not in this case. She did nothing even slightly wrong. This whole story is a result of the fact that scientific community became a bordello where anything is allowed and where (as in a bordello) people often call themselves by a different name – we read about it in literature.

    Is it “sexism”? But what is “sexism”? I know that in the second half of the 19-th century, communists who needed a large crowd of the “exploited” for their revolution, declared 50% of the population – women – exploited and abused by men. So, the largest ever conspiracy theory was born, it’s called “feminism”. And I would call this theory a sexism, a part of the theory of communism.

    Interestingly, I, myself, called my former PhD supervisor a “prostitute of science”; in this case I see it absolutely appropriate.

    I believe this war will continue for an indefinite time, not because the number of bad people has increased, but because good people have disappeared: the fear of being politically incorrect (an attribute of communism) is growing by day.

    pyshnov

    October 14, 2013 at 2:35 am

  12. Update: Biology online apologized to the blogger and terminated the services of their editor.
    See http://www.biology-online.org/biology-forum/about34647.html

    E.T.

    October 14, 2013 at 4:02 am

    • Well, there it is…the appropriate action has been taken.

      John

      October 14, 2013 at 6:25 am

  13. I agree with others above that this post is rather poorly (hurriedly?) written.

    On a different note, Jaron Lanier has written eloquently about how aggregation and the expectation of free content on the web is reshaping the marketplace and notions of authorship. His book “You Are Not A Gadget” is interesting reading. NYT review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/15/books/15book.html

    Ter77

    October 14, 2013 at 9:27 am

  14. Excellent overview here, Ivan. As a 30+ year veteran of corporate/government/non-profit public relations, I predict that this incident will become a case study in future classes taught on Issues Management and Crisis Communications. The behaviour of the BiologyOnline.org’s employee is a no-brainer (and he was appropriately sacked for his utterly inappropriate response to Dr. Lee) but SciAm’s official response from DiChristina is a case study in itself, claiming as she did that there was simply “no time” to advise Dr. Lee that her post had been spiked overnight (no time to send a one-line email?) Really? Seriously?

    I loved the resulting response of other SciAm bloggers who listed examples of their (published) SciAm blog articles in which their admitted lack of “discovering science” didn’t seem to be a factor at all in publication – e.g. Dr. Kate Clancy’s post at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/context-and-variation/2013/10/12/this-is-not-a-post-about-discovering-science/

    Carolyn Thomas

    October 14, 2013 at 11:48 am

  15. And now Bora Zivkovic (@BoraZ), Blogs Editor for Scientific American has been drawn into this sorry mess for his own past transgressions.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/priya-shetty/sexual-harassment-in-science_b_4102449.html

    Andrew Maynard seems to think that Bora Z has done so much good that he should not be subject to “naming and shaming” but Maynard’s ethical standards seem wanting.

    http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/maynard20131016

    ktwop

    October 16, 2013 at 10:20 am

    • Once again there were all the signs that BoraZ was far from the blogging guru everybody took him as. I followed him and his blog(s) for a while, then when he found out I don’t believe the world is going to fry within the end of the century he went in a vicious frenzy culminating in blocking me on Twitter (he then convinced other “friends” to block me too). I guess my Y chromosome saved me, this time around. Nobody’s perfect, but lack of humanity in one field is bound to spill into another.

      omnologos

      October 16, 2013 at 5:08 pm


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