Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Adam Bly Speaks

tags: , , , ,,

Subject: Food Frontiers

Dear ScienceBloggers,

I will be posting this on 3.14 in a few minutes:

We have removed Food Frontiers from SB.

We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.

How do we empower top scientists working in industry to lead science-minded positive change within their organizations? How can a large and diverse online community made up of scientists and the science-minded public help? How do companies who seek genuine dialogue with this community engage? We’ll open this challenge up to everyone on SB and beyond in the coming days so that we can all find the right solution.

We will also invite you all to participate in a conference call early next week to discuss our next steps and hear your suggestions.

Adam


I am going to be part of this phone call, even if I have to stay awake all night to do so. But i want to be sure I am representing your concerns as well as my own when I am talking to Adam, so please write these concerns out in the comments section below. I will be making a list of your concerns and adding it to mine and will make sure Adam addresses them.

Comments

  1. #1 anurag
    July 8, 2010

    My question? Adam, all said and done, was selling space to pepsi the only way to make money on this blogspace?

  2. #2 Adam_Y
    July 8, 2010

    So just out of curiosity why was there such a blow up over Pepsi and not GE which at one point was giving away free stuff on their blog?

  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    July 8, 2010

    AdamY: do you want me to answer your question?

  4. #4 Carlie
    July 8, 2010

    Maybe whether or not they looked at current standards and guidelines in the print and online industry for how to label and market paid advertising content?

  5. #5 HP
    July 8, 2010

    Why was the launch kept secret from the bloggers? Don’t they typically contact the bloggers and let them know when they’re launching a new blog or welcoming a new SciBling?

    I suspect that the appearance of secrecy and underhandedness is at least as big a part of the problem as the advertising aspect.

    And the fact that the bloggers weren’t given a head’s up would seem to indicate that perhaps Bly anticipated a negative reaction.

  6. #6 Todd
    July 8, 2010

    How exactly was the Pepsiblog “empowering” scientists within industry? This was empowering Pepsi to advertise their views in the context of this site. If industry wants to empower their scientists they can do so by allowing said scientists to publicly, honestly, and critically discuss their work. The idea that giving Pepsi “blog” space in this community is somehow empowering the scientists in its employ is laughable.

  7. #7 Jon H
    July 8, 2010

    I find it interesting that the corporate-sponsored blogs haven’t even been about product promotion, but more about reputation management.

    I’d find it less creepy if, say, NVidia sponsored a computer science blog written by a computer scientist that talked about graphics algorithms, OpenGL, and doing general purpose computation on graphics card GPUs, even if they tended to talk most about their own products in the context of the posts.

    Or if Mathworks sponsored a math blog where posts occasionally mentioned something being done in Matlab.

    The vague, soft-focus, “gosh isn’t the energy/GMO/fast food industry wonderful?” thing that I don’t like.

  8. #8 Edward
    July 8, 2010

    I know ScienceBloggers earn $ based on the traffic they generate, but is that a set amount or a percentage of the bottom line? In other words, my sense is a lot of you aren’t making enough to put up with all the ads on this site, so the Pepsi blog was the last straw, but if the Pepsi blog meant a boost in income (i.e. you got a piece of the action), then maybe it would be more palatable. But that wasn’t the case was it? Someone was making more money, but it wasn’t the bloggers.

    It certainly seemed to me (and my assumptions) that the cash cows around here were universally on the fence (or using the dustup to shop themselves around) while the less trafficked bloggers were a little/lot less conflicted about taking a stand.

  9. #9 "GrrlScientist"
    July 9, 2010

    edward: most/all of us have not been paid in many months, regardless of the traffic we generate. but yes, eventually we are paid on the basis of the traffic we generate. i’ve lost my contract in my relocation, but we are paid according to a stair-step payment scheme. i can’t remember the cutoffs, but the very low-traffic blogs are not paid at all, while those that generate a mountain of traffic top out at $800 (or is it $1000?) per month. historically, i have earned anywhere from $200 to $800 per month ever since i started here at Sb, with my payments increasing fairly steadily over since i started here. i believe i am consistently in top end these days, although, having not been paid for so long, i really don’t know anymore.

    [yes, i would like -- and i DESERVE -- a raise!! especially in view of how much i could earn if i became independent]

  10. #10 phil
    July 9, 2010

    What I wonder is whether Sb even took into consideration the content already created on foodfrontiers.pepsicoblogs.com. I wonder what strategy the powers that be had in place to prevent Sb’s Pepsico FF from becoming something other than the PR page the original FF is.

    I understand that SMG needs ad revenue to keep Sb afloat, but when integrity and credibility are critical to the Sb bloggers, and when a decision could possibly (and has) tarnished the credibility of their blogs on Sb, why would SMG neglect to include the science bloggers–arguably Sb’s most significant asset–in the decision to launch a sponsored blog? It’s just plain poor management, and foolishly inconsiderate. If integrity and credibility cannot be assured by Sb and SMG, than blogging at Sb becomes a serious liability to its bloggers and would-be bloggers, resulting in things like exoduses by concerned bloggers, hesitancy to accept invites to blog at Sb, and subsequently the dissolution of the very reputation that would convince an advertiser like Pepsico that it would be in their best interest to purchase blog space on Sb to host a thing like FF.

    Is the lack of communication with the bloggers a sign that SMG devalues its science bloggers? I truly hope not, and that it was instead a sign of the extent of the need for funds, which isn’t better, really (but, at least Sb can alleviate the latter with an NPR-style fund drive and strategies that don’t involve compromising the integrity of Sb and its bloggers).

    I also understand that corporate science needs to have a voice in the greater scientific discussion, but the filtering of that voice by corporations’ legal or PR or whatever departments must be kept to a minimum. But, are there any corporations that would even be willing to comply with such transparency, or would the shareholders of a corporation like Pepsi even allow their scientists to communicate without unreasonable (*) restraint?

    Sb states that it is interested in giving corporate scientists a voice, so why not create something like a CorporateScienceBlogs.com for corporate scientists–not corporations–interested in actually conducting open discussion about their work or their company’s work, without the sort of PR that riddles Pepsico’s original FF blog. Accepting money from a company like Pepsico to host a blog that would reap the credibility created by Sb’s bloggers in order to give the guise of credibility to Pepsico PR is the wrong way to give a voice to corporate scientists. It also happens to be the wrong way to raise funds for a blog network that thrives on being a credible place to find scientific communication.

  11. #11 Abe
    July 9, 2010

    I’d like an answer to Adam_Y’s question if you have one. I’m not familiar with the issue, but I’m curious what you have to say on it.

  12. #12 Ben Breuer
    July 9, 2010

    Picking up on phil’s comment: perhaps it would even be fine to create a separate stream “Industry” like you have the “Humanities”, “Biology”, etc. streams, as long as it is clear that the scientists blogging there have to serve truth and their paycheck. Also, they should probably be allowed to blog anonymously, so they have a little protection from their employer. (Don’t ask me how the vetting process would work for them.) Such an arrangement would be o.k. in my eyes, and could depending on the content even be interesting.

    But I guess the question is how the present sciencebloggers here feel. (I’m only spectator.) As the brouhaha showed, there are different views. Would you be ok with such an arrangement, Grrl? Would PZ? Would Abbie? Would Zuska? Regardless of all yinz’ dis/agreements, it would be nice if the group (what’s left) stayed together. Better many different views under one banner than few.

  13. #13 "GrrlScientist"
    July 9, 2010

    Abe & Adam_Y: the reasons this explosion occurred were several:

    1. unlike any of the other blogs here, this blog appeared out of the blue, without any discussion or warning whatsoever. this is very disrespectful to us as a community and as professionals.
    2. if this blog had been discussed with us ahead of its launch, we would have immediately given advice as to how a conflict-of-interest could have been avoided and about how we could deal with the ethical dilemma that such a blog presented. again, this lack of consideration for our input and advice was disrespectful to us as a community and to our expertise as blog writers.
    3. their blog writers don’t have a track record of blog writing. instead, they clearly bought their way onto scienceblogs. if you look at their site, you’ll see that their “blog” is actually a bunch of press releases. who wrote those? anonymous corporate lawyers, i’d guess.
    4. the blog was not (initially) marked CLEARLY as being written BY paid pepsi employees. this was a gross breach of the public trust and a huge ethical dilemma because their (paid for) content would be mingled with our material on rss feeds and in google news searches. being included in a google news search is no small feat, and the privilege can be revoked if we misbehave. paid-for corporate material would have broken google’s rules that we are supposed to conform to and would have gotten the entire site removed from google news searches.
    5. personally, i was completely mystified as to what a pepsi blog could say about their nutrition research. everything they do is proprietary and has to be passed through several layers of legal inspections before it can be made public. honestly, the things we want to know are very things they cannot tell us, so the blog would have been boring and uninformative.

    this doesn’t even go in to the huge (behind the scenes) arguments that took place when the other “sponsored” blogs appeared on the site previously.

    Ben: i would have reluctantly been “okay” with a corporate blog on the site (hey, we need the money!) if they had gotten a few actual blog writers to write real content instead of shoving corporate double-speak at the public; if the blog isn’t written solely by corporate employees; if each written piece’s byline included something to the effect that “this is sponsored content and as such, much be labeled “advertising”; if the blog name included the company name (“pepsico food frontiers,” in this case — something that SMG actually did later amend); if that blog was CLEARLY separate from the rest of the Sb community (including having distinct formatting, wallpaper, etc.); if the content published there was not included in the Sb rss feed nor would it be picked up by google news searches, and if anything that was published on that blog that pops up on the scienceblogs’ front page would automatically be placed into a separate category called “sponsored content.” i am sure there are a few other things i’d want too, but that’s just for a starter (i haven’t eaten today, so i am responding on the fly, as it were).

    anyway, i agree that a corporate blog has the potential to be interesting, but it will take a huge amount of effort and determination to make it so. most are merely press releases (booring!). but that said, derek lowe’s “in the pipeline” (hosted by corante), is an interesting blog about big pharma research, life and whatnot.

  14. #14 Ben Breuer
    July 9, 2010

    My idea with the industry blog-stream was more something along the lines of the blog you suggested at the end. Less a corporate-sponsored one. They (you, as in Sb) could do this, with the distinctions you (Grrl) cite, or even putting it on a different site, like the several national versions of Sb. But on such a sponsored blog network, full financial disclosure ought to be practiced, which need not be the case in the independent industry-scientist.blogs. For them it might be a way out of the corporate strictures to report on their science anonymously. For the sponsored blogs, it would be a trade between Seed and the sponsors, one giving money to the network as whole and the other giving some limited credibility (and challenges through comments, hopefully).

    The central question is of course: wherefrom the money. Could the management put together a grant proposal to one of the larger (or smaller) foundations? [Templeton, for example ... kidding, kidding!] What is even the volume of yearly funds involved? I guess those would be good questions to the management.

    That the management did not consult you beforehand is a shame. Probably they wanted to avoid another behind-the-scenes shit storm … that worked well! One hopes that the avenues of communication get reestablished again, or cleared of the traffic jams. All said, I hope that you (and most other bloggers I read here) stay on, and rather take Sb to task if they screw up than run for the ships to different harbors. The community, with its often divergent views, makes it interesting, and the independence from other media (like magazines and journals) something worth preserving (IMO).

    OK, sorry for the rants, and back to sweating!

  15. #15 ecologist
    July 12, 2010

    To me, the problem was obvious in the text of the announcement of PepsiBlog. It was all about how the blog was going to describe good things that Pepsico was doing. The concept of critical analysis was completely missing. It is a well-known fact that some things that Pepsico does, some products that it produces, and some of the ways in which it markets those products contribute to public health problems. It is also a fact that some of the opposition to Pepsico’s products and marketing is based on less than rigorous analysis.

    If the announcement had stated that the authors of the blog would critically examine Pepsico’s role in current food-related public health issues, I would have felt better. But it didn’t state that, and I am sure (although this is conjecture on my part) that the authors would not have been allowed to publish such an analysis.

    Instead, the announcement sounded like it was written by a PR person. So one of my questions would be — “tell us the truth; who wrote the text of that announcement? was it vetted by Pepsico?”

  16. #16 Fran
    July 12, 2010

    As far as I am concerned, the news that SB did not run an article on Bhopal because they were trying to get an advertising deal with Dow Chemical is much, much more damaging than the Pepsico fiasco. I am glad the Pepsico blog was ended (and thanks in no small part to grrlscientist and others who took a stand). But have people considered what the implications of rejecting the Bhopal article are? What is says about Seed Media, the company that owns SB? People are still dying in Bhopal as a result of Dow not assuming liabilities (it purchased Union Carbide, the operator at the time of the accident). This is a reflection of the very low character of the groups that runs SB – profits over human rights. They should be run out of business…….

  17. #17 "GrrlScientist"
    July 13, 2010

    i remember bhopal very very clearly and was checking on them a little while ago in fact, only to learn that they are still dying there, still living in abject poverty, still are not compensated for their deaths and disabilities, while the corporate perpetrators are not only even more fantastically rich than they were, but are alive and healthy and free to do as they please.

    i was inclined to stay after the pepsico blog incident had been resolved by removing that blog because that was a public act that people could see and understand. but during this fiasco, i was approached by a fair number of people who have worked with SMG throughout the years who told me (in confidence) similar stories to the DOW story. so the DOW story is simply the tip of the iceberg, as they say, but i cannot tell you more details than that. knowing what i now know, i am furious to realize that SMG is such a blatant money whore run by an abusive self-important sycophant who tells us one set of lies whilst telling his rich friends something completely different. these lies are just what we want to hear, too, which is part of what makes them so easy to believe and so painful to see for what they are.