PLOS Blogs removes post criticizing writer over sexual harassment post

plos blogsTabitha Powledge and Beryl Benderly, two long-time science writers, have found a post they wrote on PLOS Blogs taken down. The removal follows an online dispute with another blogger, Emily Willingham, about the post, which covered a session on sexual harassment, The XX Question, at the recent National Association of Science Writers (NASW) meeting in Florida.

Willingham had objected to a roundup of the session by Powledge and Benderly, pointing to, among other things, what she considered to be a white-washing of the problem and a rather hegemonic reflection of the issue which trivialized the plight of women in the field and glorified the role of a few righteous XYs.

Powledge and Benderly, in turn, hit back at Willingham’s characterization in a subsequent post, which has now been removed but which you can read here.

Here’s what PLoS has to say about its decision:

PLOS BLOGS has determined that the “On Science Blogs” post that had occupied this page  violated one of the key principles we hold for our blog network, specifically, the following language which is included in our independent blogger contract:  PLOS is interested in hosting civilized commentary and debate on matters of scientific interest. Blogger will refrain from name calling and engaging in inflammatory rhetoric. 

Because, after careful review, we’ve determined that this post crossed the line delineated in this tenet, we’re taking the post down. We’ve left the comments intact.

We’re sorry for any distress that the content of this post caused to the target, Emily Willingham, and hope that discussion and debate can continue on the original and vitally important topic of sexual harassment  without resorting to this level of exchange.

Comments and questions can be sent to

On her blog, Willingham writes that deleting the post

was not something I had requested, but I appreciate the choice and am glad to see that the comments have been left in place.

Powledge tells us:

We believe our post was proportionate to the abusive, unprovoked, and undeserved attack on us and our writing. PLOS said it violated their blogger contract. So be it.

The incident comes barely a month after Scientific American pulled a blog post from its site in which a researcher/blogger reported having been called a “whore” by an editor. That episode led to a cascade of events in which women came forward to report troubling behavior by Scientific American‘s blog editor, Bora Zivkovic, who confirmed it and resigned. It’s likely that the timing of the NASW conference shortly thereafter meant that the previously scheduled session received even more attention.

15 thoughts on “PLOS Blogs removes post criticizing writer over sexual harassment post”

  1. The Google link to the offending post is returning errors. I also couldn’t find a cached version using the Google.

    That shows the _Exact_Problem_ with censorship. How am I supposed to decide if the post in question was objectionable if I can’t read it?

    Censorship: Just say no!

  2. Re: “That episode led to a cascade of events in which women came forward to report troubling behavior…”

    Why is the blog post by Kathleen Raven not considered a form of sexual harassment? Guilty until proven innocent is not how things are supposed to work…..

    1. I think the fact the post was removed suggests that the comment was considered inflammatory. Seems like the innocent until proven guilty rule applied there to me.

    2. Dear Grant, I would not call this a “guilty until proven innocent” situation, if you are, in fact, referring to my “Two Stories” post. I would call the whole experience I endured a “failed experiment” in friendship. In your words: “Failed experiments are supposed to serve as fodder for successful experiments, so that clouded thinking can be clarified.”

      Let successful experiments designed to eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace begin.

      1. I was indeed referring to your post, Kathleen. We now know your side of the story, but only your side. Yet you’ve named names and described intimate actions that surely will embarrass another person. While the First Amendment defends your right to say anything you want, it’s deplorable that this happened.

        This is the kind of issue that often gets resolved in court, where both sides of a story can be heard. In the absence of such a balanced presentation, we read only what amounts to back-fence gossip. It is simply inadequate to say that the other person could have responded here; he’d be shouted down by an angry mob very willing to assume that every allegation is true. But regular readers of Retraction Watch should know that all claims are not true.

        Unfortunately, the internet too often leads to public mud-flinging, rather than reasoned argument. Retraction Watch should not be involved in smearing the name of someone who has no opportunity to defend himself.

        1. If transgressions are commited, there must be a way to publicly call out on such actions. After all, this is what this blog is all about. If the accused wishes his side of the story to be heard, he has many options to do so (ranging from asking Kathleen for changes, posting about in his own blog, to engaging the courts). In fact, he contributed his side of the story regarding the first two reported incidents, so I do not see your point here.

  3. “Powledge and Benderly, in turn, hit back at Willingham’s characterization in a subsequent post, which has now been removed but which you can read here.”
    Note: As at 20 Nov. 8pm EST this link is now dead.

  4. I’m afraid that neither side has done much to advance their shared cause with their blog posts. The tenor of these posts is much less than professional. The whole thing is embarrasing for women’s rights advocates. All involved parties should feel quite ashamed. I agree with PLoS Blogs in this case.

  5. I dont really see anything objectionable about the taken down post, given that the main thing it does is plainly point out that Willinghams thesis rests on a petty word-count error. This seems to be more about capitulating to hurt feelings and censorship. PLoS blogs should be ashamed.

    1. I agree that I wouldn’t remove the blog post either – free speech and all but I do think it reflects horribly on the two bloggers who posted it. Attack someones opinions – if you must – but do not attack the person. It is low class and pathetic and does NOTHING to move the conversation forward. Disagreement is good and should be encouraged. Unfortunately, we all need a course in how to disagree and still be a good human being….

  6. After reading the offending post, I don’t see what the fuss is about. Yes, it was snotty, but not outside the typical blog content. If you are going to host blogs, you need to let people get on with it. If you insist that all blogs be nicey-nicey, then you won’t get any of the benefit of free-form internet communications.

    I don’t think there was any name-calling or inflammatory rhetoric. I don’t see how the post violated the PLOS terms of service. Bad move.

  7. As PLOS BLOGS Network Community Manager, and as a science writer with high regard for Tabitha Powledge’s long and great record of science blogging, first let me say that I agonized over the weekend before concluding in consultation with my PLOS superior that we had to remove this post from our network. We did it, as previously stated, because we thought its content had departed from the original topic of sexual harassment in science and science journalism — something we agree is appropriate for PLOS bloggers to address — into ad nauseam accusations about who said what to whom during and, in the respective bloggers’ subsequent reporting on a NASW conference session about this topic. Also, because the post’s tone had veered — in my necessarily subjective view — into the realm of personal attacks on the person rather than the substance of the prior discussion. We can go on hashing out the above but I suspect that discussion has become less than productive.

    The last comment above perhaps indirectly raises an important point I’d like to address…why do we have these blog networks anyway? In the case of PLOS, where there are no ads sold on blog pages and thus traffic is not king, the answer is that we host blogs as an extension of our nonprofit mission to make the scientific literature and its interpretation — in the hands of talented science communicators — available to anyone without restriction. This Open Access mission underlies everything PLOS does, including how we alot our resources, including the development, maintenance, editorial and supervisory hours a blog network requires.

    Following from this mission, we acted in this case on the premise that we have a right and responsibility to keep our science blogs accessible (in content) and civil (in tone) for the benefit of the wide spectrum of readers who visit them regularly. As anyone who reads news and commentary online is well aware, as soon as flaming rhetoric invades a comment stream or indeed a blog itself, it tends to go further in that direction. Simply put..we don’t want to go there. Our readers don’t want to go there. We’re going to stick to the science and the challenges of communicating new research in science and medicine to scientists and non-scientists alike.

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