To: "Ofek" and the leadership of biology-online.org
From: David Wescott
Re: Correspondence with Dr. Danielle Lee
Your reputation has been badly damaged by the publishing of recent correspondence with biologist Dr. Lee, in which your blog editor suggests her reluctance to provide content to your site without financial compensation makes her an "Urban Whore."
Her response (along with a copy of the correspondence) was initially posted at her Scientific American blog, but now resides on other sites. The correspondence generated significant conversation on twitter among highly influential figures in the science and sci-comm communities, including some who have contributed to biology-online in the past and now wish to have their content removed. It has also led to critical posts on your own site's forum. As of Friday evening the conversation continues in earnest.
As you may know, Dr. Lee is a very popular and influential member of her community. Her writing and outreach skills are well-established and celebrated. She is a leading advocate for diversity in STEM and a role model to many. She also has exceptional communication skills beyond writing, as evidenced by this video of her, speaking extemporaneously, when asked to finish the sentence "Science is..."
Two significant issues compound the immediate reputational damage for your organization. First, the absence of a public response, specifically an unqualified apology, suggests you either stand by your comments or you are not organized enough to marshall a response and demonstrate accountability. It should go without saying the tone and word choice in the correspondence was unprofessional and wholly inappropriate. The comments go beyond the issue of compensation for legitimate work product and put you on the wrong side of the discussions on sexism and racism.
Second, Biology-online is part of the Scientific American Partnership Network, and prominent readers are now asking if this relationship led to the removal of Dr. Lee's post from her SciAm blog. As you know this form of censorship will not stand with SciAm's readers. Scientific American's editors will be compelled to comment publicly on why the post was removed, and this situation poses a threat to their reputation as well.
Two other issues threaten your organization's reputation over the medium-term. First, the correspondence rekindles a common debate in many online communities about appropriate compensation for quality writing. While many websites ask for (and often receive) content without financial compensation, authors argue it diminishes the overall value of content overall and damages the livelihoods of even the best freelance writers. This will diminish your reputation among those you solicit most and ultimately render your business model unsustainable.
Second, the site itself does not meet high standards of transparency, nor does it demonstrate best practices in design. The "webmaster" asserts copyright (i.e., ownership) of all content on the site while not disclosing the webmaster's identity. The "biology online team" do not provide adequate information of their background, roles or responsibilities. The site employs an outdated design, rudimentary SEO tactics, and free ad banners and forum scripts. Claims of significant web traffic are unverified. Text written by the webmaster or staff has numerous errors and typos. The site has no social media assets to allow for more direct and public feedback. Taken in sum the site looks like a small operation that spams writers for content, claims ownership of the effort of others, and attempts to profit while investing as little time or resources as possible.
In the absence of quick remedies, Biology-online can expect continued criticism from prominent online voices, fewer quality contributions, less web traffic, and the potential dissolution of its partnership with Scientific American. Any traffic spike the site gets right now is almost completely attributed to the controversy. Ultimately, this will hasten the site's demise.
Biology-online leadership should offer a public and unqualified apology to Dr. Lee. The apology should not only acknowledge the inappropriate word choice, but also clearly recognize the cultural and contextual ramifications of those words. Further, the apology should be attached to a full name - not the "biology-online team" or "webmaster." It is best placed on the Biology-online blog and promoted via social media channels.
Biology-online should also specify what it has done or will do to ensure accountability. While this does not mean that Ofek should necessarily lose his job, some action is appropriate to reinforce the notion that biology-online truly values the work of its contributors and treats all people with respect and dignity.
Biology-online should reach out to Dr. Lee and others in the community and ask to have a public, candid discussion about the issues facing freelance writers and content creators, specifically addressing the concerns Dr. Lee raises in her response and developing or affirming "best practices." It would be best if a third party with more credibility on these issues led the discussion, such as the editors at Scientific American.
Biology-online should offer an apology to the editors at Scientific American for endangering their reputation by association. There is little doubt that the Sci-Am partnership is significant to your site's credibility, and there is value in preserving that partnership.
Finally, Biology-online should conduct its affairs more transparently and redesign its site to reinforce this value. The site should identify its leadership with full names and clear responsibilities. It should elaborate and clarify its policies on how it seeks content and why it asserts ownership of others' work product. It should clearly express how it adds value to your readers and contributors.