A View on Scientific American Blogs and Censorship of Dr. Danielle Lee

For far too long, the presumption has been that if you’re a woman, a person of color, or from a lower socioeconomic status that folks think they can get you, your talent, your expertise, or your energy for free.

- Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., video commentary

You don't want none of this. Credit: DNLee.

You don’t want none of this. Credit: DNLee.

Since Friday night, the science blogosphere and larger media enterprises (Buzzfeed, Business Insider) have been abuzz with discussion over the treatment of biologist and science writer Dr. Danielle Lee by the alleged editor of the Biology-Online blog network and, subsequently, censorship by the editor-in-chief of Scientific American.

A recap of the situation is as follows:

1. Danielle receives a query from a person identifying themselves as Ofek, blog editor of Biology-Online.org, which he/she described as “one of the world’s largest biology websites with over 1.6 million visitors per month.”

2. Within 12 hours, Danielle responded that it sounded like a good opportunity but she had questions about the frequency of blogging since it wasn’t exactly clear from Ofek’s original query and another about their payment rate for guest bloggers? (1 and 2 in this correspondence PDF).

3. Ofek responded 10 hours later that he was soliciting a monthly article which Danielle could then repost on her blog after two weeks but that, “Regarding payment, truthfully, we don’t pay guest bloggers.” He/she goes on to say that even Mayo Clinic physician Dr Michael Joyner didn’t receive payment for his one contribution but that one would gain indirect financial benefit from exposure to their 1.6 million monthly visitors.

4. Danielle responded 11 hours later to thank him for his reply, indicated that she would decline his offer, and wished him a good day. (3 and 4 in this correspondence PDF).

At this point, the discussion has been cordial with both parties promptly responding to each others’ queries. But then. . .

5. Ofek responded 11 hours later with a two-line email that read, “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist [the name of her blog] or an urban whore?”

6. Danielle responds eight hours later (Fri 10th October, 8:41 am EDT) with a one-line question, “Did YOU JUST CALL ME A WHORE?” (5 and 6 in this correspondence PDF).

7. Danielle writes a blog post on this exchange that she put up on her Scientific American blog together with a four-minute video that politely explained her stance.

8. Sometime around 10:00 pm on Friday night, the blog post disappears intermittently from Danielle’s blog, and she tweets that she postulates there’s some sort of technical network issue, perhaps due to high traffic. Minutes later, it’s clear that no one can access the blog post.

9. At 10:14 am on Saturday morning, a tweet is posted by Editor in Chief and Senior VP of Scientific American, Mariette DiChristina, that read, “Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.”

10. Much rancor and speculation ensues, in part because Scientific American appears to be selectively penalizing Danielle’s content relative to other bloggers there who post similar kinds of protests or appeals for equity in science and science writing. Biology-Online.org is also listed as a “partner” of Scientific American.

 

Why, exactly, was the post removed?

So what about Danielle’s post was worthy of censorship by Scientific American? Other women at SciAmBlogs have noted their writing on issues of equity and experiences in the professions. So it can’t be that.

Is it because, out of all her writing and video dialogue, she used one borderline vulgarity (“butt-hurt”)?

Well, then, let’s search SciAm for the f-word.

It’s found in various conjugations in other blogposts and even a Fast Company article that SciAm posted. And I’d have to say that its use serves the story and the reader in all the cases where I see it appear.

Now, C&EN prefers that I not use any of George Carlin’s seven words here. But they give me great latitude in writing about topics that affect almost any scientific or personal issue. In fact, I just checked my contract: I’m a non-staff freelancer who has been contracted, “to expand the breadth of coverage and diversity of voices at CENtral Science.”

As for content, the only stipulations are that my work must be my own (other than explicitly-credited guest posts) and that, “the materials produced hereunder do not infringe any copyright violate any property rights or contain any scandalous, libelous or unlawful matter.”

(I double-checked the dictionary to be sure that this post isn’t scandalous, or, “causing general public outrage by a perceived offense against morality or law.”)

CENtral Science blog network is not the 90-year-old magazine that C&EN is – the official organ of the American Chemical Society. CENtral Science is a modern genre extension of the magazine where bloggers who are mostly magazine staff writers can spread their wings and write in a style that doesn’t fit in the magazine yet still serves a subset of their readers.

Some of that content is cleverly fun. Former laser chemist Dr. Lauren Wolf pees in the ocean. She convinced her niece that it’s okay to pee in the ocean. They are now trying to convince her husband that it’s okay to pee in the ocean.

Her post on the concept was a blockbuster here, having some truly superb scientific content and getting picked up by larger and more broad online sites such as Gizmodo and Jezebel. So proud were we of Lauren’s levity that fellow chemist and C&EN reporter Dr. Carmen Drahl did a five-minute interview with Lauren that had a similar, tongue-in-cheek tone. (Postscript: I can personally vouch for the fact that Dr. Wolf doesn’t pee in the wide-open desert of northern New Mexico.)

Hence, I submit that the blog media is different from the more staid, older publications like C&EN, 90 years old this year, and Scientific American, now 168. But it’s the host’s prerogative to define what tone and voice is permitted on the blog network they host (yes, yes, I understand that it’s difficult to fully define contractually.). One would expect, however, that such editorial decisions are applied equally across the network

Where I write at Forbes.com, it’s made very clear that they want me to write on topics within my “swim lane” – pharmaceuticals and drug safety, education, and general science. The one time that I flailed four lanes over – on a weekend – I was politely but firmly told by an editor (within eight hours) that the post was inconsistent with our agreement and that it hadn’t been a problem in the past and they were sure it wouldn’t happen again.

But they did not remove the post.

 

Why professionals who are men and white still need to stand up for professionals who are women, from other underrepresented groups or, in general, not part of the dominant demographic

In the case of Danielle Lee, it appears that the editorial appropriateness of a post was defined for her differently than for other bloggers at the SciAmBlogs network. Our chemist colleague, Dr. Rubidium, raised the point last night at the irrepressible JAYFK that she feared rules were being inconsistently applied to Danielle because of her being a scientist of color. Dr. Rubidium speaks to this issue from the standpoint of being a chemist who is a woman and a person of color.

I tend to agree with Dr. Rubidium, but for somewhat different reasons. I fear that the selective application of censorship to Danielle’s SciAmBlogs piece was that she wrote in a tone of black, Southern vernacular, with or without an unconscious editorial view of her “blackness.” Danielle herself calls it, “inner city anthropology.” (We can speak elsewhere about acceptable modern terminology to describe people of color as black, Black, brown, or, still in some older parts of my community, yes, Negro.)

I am unapologetically black and urban and female. Why does this matter to science? Because access to science (information and career opportunities) has real life consequences for people. But if the academia doesn’t have representation or at least people who understand these students, then how do they gain access to higher education or STEM?. . .

. . .If I, as a PhD scientist with credentials, cannot call my fellow scientists to task on the role privilege and prejudices play in academia, then who can? Better yet, who else will?

– Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., The Urban Scientist, 24 January 2013

I’m a middle-aged man of only moderate intelligence (1100 math and reading SAT score, 1120 GRE) from a northeastern US white, middle-class family who was fortunate to be given an opportunity for education that I might not have had without the support of a few crucial champions. Whatever that did to me, consciously and unconsciously, is that I’ve spent my independent professional career working on minority scholarships and career development in pharmacy, had a laboratory environment that disproportionately attracted trainees who were women, and spent four years as a pharmaceutical sciences professor at an HBCU in the American South, a region where I’ve now lived for one-third of my life.

So one wouldn’t be surprised to know that I’ve been working on ScienceOnline sessions diversity in the science blogosphere and scientific community for several years. I’ve worked specifically with Danielle Lee since ScienceOnline2011 when she, Alberto Roca (MinorityPostdoc.org) and I co-moderated a session on the underrepresentation of minorities in the STEM discplines and science communications community (in fact, my original proposal for a diversity session held in 2010 included Danielle and the now-silent blogger, AcmeGirl). We subsequently did a similar session in San Jose, California, at the 2011 annual meeting of SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science).

And most recently, I worked with Danielle on a Science Journalism 101 panel for the 2013 annual meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in Orlando, Florida. Together with SciAm editor Robin Lloyd, MedPage Today executive editor Ivan Oransky, and Washington, DC, radio host Jamila Bey, we discussed ways that black-specialty publications might improve their coverage of science and health while encouraging up-and-coming writers of color to pitch science stories.

I shall refer here to the JAYFK’s publication of Danielle’s original post as it appeared on Friday at her SciAm blog, The Urban Scientist.

1. Danielle launches the post about a wrap cloth called a khanga that she wore in Tanzania during her last three-month stint of research there. The English translation of the quote on the khanga is, “Give trouble to others, not me.” This was, in my view, a wonderful metaphor with which to lead the post.

2. She relates this African saying to a 21st century ghetto proverb she learned from growing up in inner South Memphis, “Don’t start none, won’t be none.”

3. She then wrote this paragraph after introducing that Ofek had called her a whore:

My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately:”Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”

4. After embedding her video response that lacked such vernacular and discussing why anyone would decide not to write compensation-free, she wrote:

But the fact is told ol’ boy No; and he got all up in his feelings. So, go sit on a soft internet cushion, Ofek, ’cause you are obviously all butt-hurt over my rejection. And take heed of the advice on my khanga.

5. She closed with a beautifully classic photo of herself giving what I would call the ever-so-slight mal ojo, and this:

Thanks to everyone who helped me focus my righteous anger on these less-celebrated equines. I appreciate your support, words of encouragement, and offers to ride down on his *$$.

I’m concerned that the censorship of her post related to editorial discomfort over a woman of color using (mild) inner city language. If that’s one of the reasons, it reflects northern, white discomfort with the way non-northern, non-whites speak.

Two of the most-resonant things Danielle ever said were that when talking to young, black kids about her science, mostly when she was getting her Ph.D. in St. Louis, is that they said she “wasn’t black enough” to be authentic in her call for them to be interested in science – to which she then broke into some good ghetto language that she used to respond to the students.

Second was that she felt we in the sciences tend to underestimate or even disrespect the role that the church plays in the lives of African-Americans. Rather than demonizing religion, as some bloggers and academic do, she felt that reaching out to the religious community would be an effective strategy for scientists to cultivate minority students into our disciplines. Here at CENtral Science, I have to say that I’m proud of some ACS chapters that do just that – a Philadelphia ACS group ran a series of outreach activities at African-American churches to tell the story of the renowned black chemist, Percy Julian.

And while teaching at an HBCU, I fielded scholarship applications where students would unapologetically profess that their pursuit of a pharmaceutical sciences and biotechnology career was a call from God and a way for them to live their faith by doing good works to benefit others.

These kinds of experiences, so common to Danielle and those I have come to understand and appreciate over the last 20 years, lead to a writing style and cultural environment that often makes some white folks uncomfortable.

But for us to be truly inclusive in science – both with regard to recruiting and retaining minority scientists and effectively engaging with underrepresented public audiences – we need to be culturally-sensitive and respectful of the manner in which non-white, non-northern US communities communicate.

Yes, in academic contexts, we are all expected to speak and write in a relatively standardized manner regardless of our backgrounds. But as I mentioned earlier, the blog medium is generally much more informal and inclusive of the thoughts, views, and values that we bring to science communication. The decision to censor Dr. Danielle N. Lee’s blogpost was inconsistent with the medium and, more importantly, the manner in which the writings of other network bloggers are treated.

Note added: It’s been brought to my attention that Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds wrote yesterday on this issue of code-switching and the perception of Danielle’s writing. My apologies for not noticing it until now.

 

Editorial response update

While I was writing this post, in fits and spurts since 6:15 am, a full explanation was offered by SciAm’s editor in chief, Mariette DiChristina, that Danielle’s post was perceived as a personal issue and, “unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post.” DiChristina then goes on to justify the lack of advance notification of Danielle about the post’s removal with the harried weekend activities. But if one had enough access to remove the post, one would also have the wherewithal to send a three line email to Danielle that they were taking the post down for the weekend, why, and that they would discuss the issue in further detail with her and SciAm bloggers on Monday.

 

Where’s Bora?

While I read more about the discussion that ensued the rest of Sunday, let me say one thing about the founder and blog editor of SciAm blogs, Bora Zivkovic, in part because he is a local friend and usually a vociferous commentator on a great many issues. I have had no contact with Bora other than to drop him a Twitter DM saying that I would be posting a defense of Danielle and that I would be briefly defending him.

So I can only postulate that he has been working behind the scenes to keep the SciAm blog community informed, unified, and assured that he was working as much as he could on a decision that was probably made up the supervisory chain. Because Bora, like me, left ScienceBlogs.com during the ethical lapse known as Pepsigate, one would expect him to be outraged at the editorial treatment of Danielle’s post. If lawyers became involved, as DiChristina notes, I suspect that Bora had to work very hard to keep his opinions out of the public space.

Bora’s relative silence speaks volumes about how the censorship of Danielle’s post was out of his hands. In fact, I would offer that Scientific American should be very thankful that Bora is their blog network editor because most commentators have given the network the benefit of the doubt because of his integrity. While this episode has blown up, I believe it could be even worse for Scientific American if Bora had not been their blog editor.

Comments and alternative interpretations are always welcome below.

Update: 5:24 am, 14 October – Alan Weisleder of Keebali, the company that operates Biology-Online.org, sent an apology (JPEG screenshot) to Danielle Lee overnight. On their discussion board, a slightly extended apology is directed to the community. Weisleder notes that Ofek was a new employee and has since been terminated.

 

Yes, I know this was a long post. Follow me instead on Twitter @DavidKroll.

 

 

 

Author: David Kroll

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6 Comments

  1. Glad to see this incident is getting the attention it deserves. I would love to see Danielle as a guest ‘scientist’ on “Big Bang theory” to really give SciAm a ‘dope slap’ and give Miss Lee the last word.

  2. As a woman of color in STEM, one thing I would like to comment on is the fallout from the incident.

    What I am seeing is a massive response from decent people demanding accountability from the perpetrator and his/her institutional defenders. I’m seeing power have to scramble, scared, to respond to that which they tried to sweep under the rug.

    So while I am saddened that DNLee was subjected to this, I also find it heartening in some ways.

  3. i have been following this event since it first popped up on twitter. first, i am surprised and pleased that biology-online actually has a backbone and fired ofek for his inexcusable and outrageous behaviour, and followed that with an apology to Dr Lee. they should be commended for their clear thinking and decisive actions.

    however, the way that SciAm handled the situation (and continues to handle it now) was unethical and completely unprofessional. the fact that they took down a published piece without replacing it on the site with a brief formal explanation for why it disappeared was a breach of journalistic ethics. the fact that they took down one of their writers’ pieces without emailing a 2-3 sentence notice demonstrates their lack of integrity and it is astonishingly disrespectful. then, the fact that the senior editor issued one explanation on twitter — an explanation that was CLEARLY bogus — then claimed she had a completely different reason for her actions in a piece she published a day later — only serves to strengthen my distrust and intense dislike of SciAm and what they claim to represent. at this point, i am disgusted with the amateurish dog-and-pony show that is SciAm. i think that the senior editor owes Dr Lee AND the reading public a PUBLIC apology for the editor’s inexplicable behaviour and for her inability to consistently explain why she took down that piece in the first place.

  4. Grrlscientist is totally on target: this is a take-down, not mealy-mouse censorship. SciAm is off the mark on this. But go ahead and start a Kerner Commission, run a feature on racism. Ignore this emblematic incident. Fortunately science writing is abundant. I can read elsewhere. Sorry you’ve all got such thick skulls over there. Yes this sealed the deal for me. They don’t need your’s or my page views, and they don’t need free or low-cost labor clamoring for nothing in return.

  5. David, I love the point you made toward the end of this post about religion being important to African-Americans. “We need to be culturally-sensitive and respectful of the manner in which non-white, non-northern US communities communicate.” In order to communicate effectively with an audience (about science or otherwise), you need to know what fires them up and respect that. I’ve covered the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) conference for some years now. One of the things that struck me when I first attended a meeting was that they pray before each meal during the conference. You certainly won’t get that at other scientific meetings. But it’s something important to them and it gives the conference an amazing energy and a family feel. And most importantly, I’m sure it helps drive the students to attend.

  6. It may well be that the initial censorship of Lee’s post was not in Bora Zivkovic’s hands and even that he may have helped its later reinstatement. But it would seem his hands are not entirely clean.
    The rush by his friends to be his apologists is more than a little worrying.

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