To: Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American
From: David Wescott
Re: Censorship on the blog network
Your online reputation has been significantly damaged by the removal of a post from Dr. Danielle Lee's Urban Scientist blog, the subsequent explanation (and clarification) for the decision, and the resulting discussion.
As you know, Biology-online.org, a member of the Scientific American Partnership Network, solicited Dr. Lee to contribute content on their site without offering financial compensation. When she politely refused, the blog editor there called her an "Urban Whore." Readers of Biology-online.org have asked questions about this on the site's forum, and an administrator has offered a response, albeit an insufficient one. Scientific American's response to this situation so far is to remove Dr. Lee's response from her blog.
It does not appear that Dr. Lee was contacted in advance of the decision to censor her post. This is a mistake. Further, the brief reasoning that has been shared publicly - that the post was not relevant enough to "discovering science" or that it "verged into the personal" - does not withstand even brief scrutiny.
As you know, Dr. Lee's post deals with an issue that is directly relevant to everything that happens at Scientific American online - the actual value publishers place on science communication. The fact that Dr. Lee draws upon personal experience makes her post more compelling and credible, not less. Other blog network contributors have already pointed to posts that clearly do not meet the "discovering science" criteria yet remain published. Further, they point to comments from the blog network editor that suggest a "write whatever you want" policy.
This creates a crisis with three specific "audiences." The first audience is internal. Contributors to the network no longer have clear guidance on criteria or process for publication. The second is an "opinion elite" or audience of those who follow Scientific American closely and can impact its reputation within the scientific community. These peers view censorship as a last resort, and are not convinced of any imminent threat Dr. Lee's post posed to the blog network to merit its immediate removal. Finally, the public at large is an important audience.
In this regard, the coverage in Buzzfeed is particularly damaging, as it reaches an audience far larger and far more diverse than Scientific American online. This is the audience Scientific American needs to expand its readership and fulfill its mission, but for many of them this story is their introduction to your publication. They see this as an obvious mistake. The statement provided to Buzzfeed is passive, vague, and elusive. Further, it puts Scientific American on the wrong side of the discussions about racism and sexism, particularly in science and technology.
As you know, several posts have now emerged criticizing the editors at Scientific American, even some from within the network. The blog network editor has been uncharacteristically silent.
In the immediate future, you can expect more critical comments from more prominent sources, including organizations that advocate for women and people of color. You can expect more critical posts from within Scientific American, and possibly even attempts to re-publish Dr. Lee's post verbatim on the network that censored it. You can expect departures from the blog network. You can expect individuals to look much more closely into the relationship you have with Biology-online.org and the way in which the editors came to their decision to take down the post. You may see a downturn in the number and quality of submissions for your guest blog. Ultimately, you may see a decline in online traffic and ad revenue.
The editors at Scientific American online should republish Dr. Lee's Post and offer an unqualified apology. Dr. Lee's post does not likely violate any guidelines set out by her editor, and the quality of writing met appropriate standards. The statement of apology should also recognize the organization's failure to support Dr. Lee when she was treated disrespectfully by an ad network partner. The embarrassment of admitting you were wrong, even now, is far less damaging than the credibility lost by continuing to defend an indefensible position.
The editors should contact Biology-online.org to express their strong disapproval of the way one of their blog contributors was treated, and review the possibility of terminating this partnership.
The editors should draft a communication to blog network members informing them of the apology offered to Dr. Lee and explaining the process by which the editors came to their decision. They should be available to all network members and other relevant parties for a Q&A session.
The editors should work with the contributors to establish a clear set of guidelines, rights, and responsibilities for publication.
The editors should publish an editorial offering a public and unqualified apology, reinforcing the organization's commitment to free speech, and emphasizing the value of their contributors' work.
The editors should work with a third party with expertise in STEM diversity to convene a discussion on how the publication can support this cause more effectively. There are many individuals and organizations with expertise here. Veronica Arreola is a good start - she has expertise in the topic, and she is well-regarded in online communities that extend far beyond science.
The editors should strengthen partnerships with journalism advocates, business leaders, and centers of entrepreneurship such as the National Association of Business Incubators to explore new ways to underscore the value of science writing and develop more sustainable business models for freelance science writers. While this is a long-term project with an uncertain future, taking this or a similar effort will demonstrate Scientific American's commitment to its contributors and a more sustainable financial future for all parties.