Mike’s 2¢ on Scientific American‘s silencing of DNLee

October 14, 2013

In what is by now a much-reported story, @DNLee, who writes the Urban Scientist blog on the Scientific American blog network, was invited by Biology Online to write a guest-post for their blog. On being told this was a non-paying gig, she politely declined: “Thank you very much for your reply. But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.” To which Biology Online’s blog editor Ofek replied “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

So far, so horrible. I had never heard of Biology Online before this, and won’t be seeking them out. You can add my name of the long list of people who certainly won’t be writing free content for them.

It’s what happened next that bothers me.

DNLee posted on her blog about what happened — rather a restrained post, which took the opportunity to discuss the wider implications rather than cursing out the perpetrator.

And Scientific American deleted the post.

They just deleted it.

This bothers me much more than the original incident, because I had no idea who Biology Online are, but thought I knew what Scientific American was. Looks like I didn’t. All I know for sure about them now is that they’re a company that accepts advertising revenue from Biology Online. Just saying.

Not a word was said to DNLee about this censorship by the people running the network. The post just vanished, bam. If you follow the link, it currently says “You have reached this page due to an error”. Yes. An error on the part of the blog-network management.

(This, by the way, is one of the reasons I don’t expect Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week ever to join one of these networks. I will not tolerate someone else making a decision to take down one of my posts.)

What makes this much worse is that Scientific American‘s Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina has flat-out lied about this incident at least once. First she tweeted “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” Then after a day of silence, she blogged “we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post“.

So which was it, SciAm? Did you censor the post because it was off-topic? Or because of a perceived legal threat? Or, since we know at least one of these mutually contradictory claims isn’t true, maybe neither of them is, and you removed it avoid inconveniencing a sponsor?

DiChristina’s blog-post is a classic nonpoplogy. It says nothing about the original slur that gave rise to all this, and it doesn’t apologise of DNLee for censoring her perfectly reasonable blog-post. What it does do is blame the victim by implying that DNLee’s post is somehow illegal. (You can judge for yourself whether it is by reading one of the many mirrors.)

Then there’s this: “for legal reasons we had to remove the post”. What legal reasons? When did the SciAm legal team get involved in this? (Did they at all? I am sceptical.) Have you actually been threatened by Biology Online? (Again, I have my doubts.) Even if a threat has been received, it’s at best cowardly of SciAm to cave so immediately, and grotesquely unprofessional not even to bother notifying DNLee.

So SciAm are digging themselves deeper and deeper into this hole. Even their usually prolific and reliable blog editor @BoraZ has gone uncharacteristically quiet — I can only hope because he, too, is being silenced, rather than because he’s complicit.

There are only two ways for the SciAm blogging network to get out of this with some shreds of their reputation intact. They need to either show clearly that DNLee was lying about Biology Online, in which case they would merely have mismanaged this incident; or they need to reinstate her post and apologise properly. “Properly” means “We screwed up because of our cowardice, please forgive us”, not “We’re sorry if some people were offended by our decision to do this thing that we’re going to keep claiming was OK”. Because it wasn’t.

Right then, SciAm. Where now?

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5 Responses to “Mike’s 2¢ on Scientific American‘s silencing of DNLee”

  1. Panagrellus Says:

    Scientific American’s behaviour appears even more bizarre now that Biology-Online has
    1) confirmed that the awful email was indeed sent by one of their editors
    2) apologized to DNLee
    3) fired the editor.

    So, what exactly are these alleged legal threats?

    http://www.biology-online.org/biology-forum/about34647.html


  2. […] this is transparently a meditation on the DNLee/Biology Online/Scientific American […]


  3. Although of a much smaller consequence, when I brought to their attention that one of the SA blogs had made a very basic anatomy error (referred to birds knees as bending backwards) silence was their only response. So there seems to be something of a pattern of not wanting to deal with criticism.

    That said, what happened to DNLee is obviously orders of magnitude more wrong, and your post accurate summarizes my views as well Matt.

  4. Mike from Ottawa Says:

    “So, what exactly are these alleged legal threats?”

    If DNLee’s claim about the messages from a Biology-Online were untrue, they would constitute libel, even if it is awfully difficult to succeed in a libel action in the USA. Note that SciAm, at least in the present note on the post, used the term “legal reasons” not “legal threats”.

    Can guys here have so forgotten the Simon Singh case that they’ve forgotten the very existence of defamation law?


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