Adventures in Ethics and Science

With this post, I say goodbye to ScienceBlogs.

Am I leaving because of the fiasco with the PepsiCo blog? Not directly.

That’s not to say that there weren’t serious issues raised by the whole incident. Many of these lie in the realm of journalistic ethics, at least as understood by people you might regard as affiliated with old school journalistic outlets (notwithstanding the fact that many such outlets currently have a significant online presence). The analyses by Paul Raeburn, Curtis Brainard, and John Rennie all do a nice job setting out the central issues in case, so do click through to read them if you haven’t already.

I know some are of the view that the new-ish medium of blogging is a blank slate that need not be bound by the old rules of the old media, or that bloggers are not journalists (especially if their day jobs are something other than being journalists) and thus needn’t worry about the ethical constraints the J-school crowd take to be important. But I’m starting to wonder if bloggers can really claim that much freedom to self-identify their roles when for practical purposes their writing is functioning as journalism. Especially for a media group that fought to have its bloggers’ output indexed by Google News (as Seed Media Group did), setting aside recognized standards of journalistic ethics without serious consideration and a positive argument for why they should not apply to one’s blogging empire seems pretty shortsighted.

I’m also aware that some saw an irony in science journalists taking such umbrage at the breeching of the separation between editorial content and advertising at ScienceBlogs given that journalism as an industry seems to have an ample supply of publishers, editors, reporters, and such looking to stretch the rules as far as they will go. The tendency toward such behaviors is exactly why an industry or profession might want to articulate ethical codes — to say, “We should do better than this.” As John Rennie writes:

I’m by no means implying that digital media should shut up and listen to print media because it has all the answers. Far from it: print media needs to listen to digital these days more often than the reverse. Nevertheless, the ethics of journalism and the implicit covenants that publications have with their readers are topics with which traditional media have decades of experience. …

The American Society of Magazine Editors maintains a set of guidelines to help editors (and publishers) stay in the best ethical graces of the profession. Not that editors and publishers don’t in fact try to bend those rules, or outright ignore them. … Nor is it always easy to determine whether a particular sponsorship opportunity crosses the line. The guidelines don’t end discussion; but they are a place to start it.

Trying to do better does not mean that you always do as well as you hope to. It doesn’t mean you’re immune from misjudging a situation, or making the wrong call. But it does mean that you feel the pull of your duty to the interested parties — here, ScienceBlogs readers — for whom you’re trying to do better. We’re not just writing for ourselves here, we’re writing for an audience. That audience has a right to expect us to deal with them honestly and in good faith.

I suspect that some of the science journalists ScienceBlogs lost in the wake of PepsiGate had expected better from Seed Media Group than they might have from the old media. When you find out you’re affiliated with an organization that doesn’t share some of your core values, and when that affiliation is voluntary, severing the association makes perfect sense.

Some have objected that people should stay to try to influence the organization to adopt better values (where “better” is obviously better by the lights of the folks inclined to leave). For some people, this would feel like the best path forward. For others, the individual cost they might bear by staying (in terms of lost professional credibility, or the amount of effort it might take to nudge the organization even a little, or the amount of frustration they might have to eat for putting in that effort) just wouldn’t seem worth it.

Besides, if you’ve had enough experience of trying to nudge the organization where none of your efforts have produced discernible results and all of the mistakes that the organization had opportunity to learn from have been repeated and amplified, you update your prior probabilities (as the Bayesians are wont to say).

All of which is to say, I think I understand why some Sb bloggers left as l’affaire PepsiCo made impact, why some left after a longer interval, and why some are hanging on tight to Sb. And I hope I have enough empathy and regard for all of these bloggers to respect that they have made (and are making) the best decisions in light of their own values and interests, their own stamina and limits, their own relationship with blogging as an activity and this network of bloggers as a community.

Likewise, I hope they will enough empathy and regard for me to respect my decision at this juncture.

Since January 2006, I have been part of ScienceBlogs. I feel extremely fortunate to have been a part of this grand experiment in communicating about science and the scientific life with a broader public, and tremendously grateful to Christopher Mims for inviting my tiny little blog about ethics and science along for the ride.

Being part of the Sb community has given my blog more visibility and reach to an audience I would never have had operating solely through the standard channels of academic publishing. It has fostered fruitful interactions with other bloggers in the network, and lasting friendships with many more of those bloggers. Most importantly (to me, anyway), the soapbox Sb has given me nucleated an amazing community of commenters — some of the smartest, wittiest, most insightful people I’ve had the pleasure of engaging online or off.

Blogging has been a growth experience for me. Writing here for an audience that writes back (whether through comments, separate blog posts, or emails) has helped me to appreciate more complexities, and to think about very compelling objections to the views I started out with. These bloggy interactions keep me learning a great deal about the practical challenges of navigating the evolutionary landscape of a scientific career while still being guided by the ethical standards. You, my readers, have stretched me to communicate more effectively to a broad audience.

The direction I find myself growing as a blogger, at this stage, diverges from the direction Seed Media Group and ScienceBlogs have been growing. I have valued the community here (and have had occasion to labor very hard on its behalf), but my heart and my head say that it’s time for me to move on and wish Sb well in its endeavors without me.

I will still be blogging — one of the unexpected parts of this experience has been the extent to which blogging has become part of my own process for learning and teaching and doing my research, so I don’t want to abandon what’s working for me.

Adventures in Ethics and Science will have a new home at Scientopia, a brand new collective of people writing about science in its various aspects because they love to do so. I recognize that Seed Media Group has an interest in selling ads to make a profit, and I think there’s a place in the blogosphere for profit-driven blog networks. However, my own preference at this stage of my blogging life is to move to a home where monetizing my page views is not the driving concern.

Thanks to Chris Mims, Katherine Sharpe, Ginny Hughes, Erin Johnson, Arikia Millikan, and Evan Lerner for their efforts on behalf of me, the other bloggers, and Sb as a whole, and thanks to Adam Bly for making this adventure in science communication a reality. Thanks to the other bloggers for setting such a high standard and for blogging about so many interesting things. Most of all, thanks to my readers for pushing me every single day to be a better blogger.

It’s been a wild ride, and I’m hopeful that you will stay tuned (at the new channel) to see how the next chapter unfolds.

Comments

  1. #1 Ewan
    August 2, 2010

    Glad to see this, Janet. RSS updated; see you there.

  2. #2 Doug Henning
    August 2, 2010

    Hey, Dr. Free-Ride. Long-time lurker, first-time poster. I am happy that you posted this, alerting me to the existence of the far more attractive, less cluttered, engaging, and altogether excellent collection of bloggers over at Scientopia. Indeed, the expectation I have of what I read over there is quite different when there are no Best Buy ads on the side. I look forward to commenting over there.

  3. #3 Brian
    August 2, 2010

    I look forward to continuing to read your posts from your new home on the internets!

  4. #4 Katherine Sharpe
    August 2, 2010

    Janet, I’ve been way out of the loop for a long time, but just wanted to say I saw this, thank you for being such an awesome and integral part of the ScienceBlogs community for so long, and I’ll be bookmarking Scientopia.

    I hope all the big important things are very well with you!

  5. #5 ecologist
    August 2, 2010

    I am very sorry to hear that you are leaving. However, I am heartened to have the link to Scientopia, which I hope grows in the future.

    I have found your blog consistently useful and thought-provoking, with extremely well-articulated arguments and analyses. Plus the sprogs.

    Thanks, and see you on scientopia.

  6. #6 Aratina Cage
    August 2, 2010

    Thank you for the parting mind worm (the title). Farewell!

  7. #7 arvind
    August 2, 2010

    Great goodbye post Dr.Stemwedel!

    I hope I have enough empathy and regard for all of these bloggers to respect that they have made (and are making) the best decisions in light of their own values and interests, their own stamina and limits, their own relationship with blogging as an activity and this network of bloggers as a community.

    This paragraph is made of awesome. Wish more folks understood this nuance better and gave their blogging colleagues the needed courtesy. And let me assure you empathy is one thing you have by the truckloads, among many of your other admirable traits.

  8. #8 et
    August 3, 2010

    I was worried there for a while that you might be leaving altogether. Glad to see you will continue posting philosophical thoughtfulness.

    Will now go check out your new digs and colleagues.

  9. #9 Mark P
    August 4, 2010

    I have enjoyed reading your posts, and this is not a comment on your decision to leave, but the cold, hard fact is that journalistic ethics are a great idea observed mostly in the breach. There is certainly a lot of lip service, but it all really boils down to money. Newspaper and TV stations are businesses first. Some of the people down in the trenches might think they are great professionals with high ethical standards, but that is a naive attitude. Upper management considers those people cogs in the money machine, pretty much interchangeable and useful as long as what they does helps the bottom line.

  10. #10 Cleveland
    August 4, 2010

    While I regret the fact that you will be (temporarily?) losing a bit of the platform and high profile that you used to discuss issues related to the well regulated and humane use of animals in research…I understand.

    Certainly I have no views positive or negative on how, when or why you chose to leave this platform for another. It just is what it is. Neutral.

  11. #11 Sandra Porter
    August 4, 2010

    I bid a sad farewell! Hope to see you in Berkeley again!