Terra Sigillata

Given the events of yesterday about corporate sponsorship in the objective landscape of science journalism, I found it ironic that my research collaboration meeting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill brought me to their beautiful FedEx Global Education Center where I enjoyed an iced pomegranate tea.

However, I was feeling badly about midday from a combination of the high temperatures and, more significantly, high ozone levels that gave me some respiratory problems from my longstanding asthma issues that preceded LungMutiny2010.

The dream
So, I took a nap and had a dream. I dreamt that I received an e-mail from ScienceBlogs management asking for blogger feedback on an idea to launch a corporate-sponsored blog that was written by food scientists and physicians who worked for a large, multinational food company. I dreamt that on a discussion forum an exceedingly explosive debate ensued between bloggers and SB management about the wisdom of doing so. Virtually unanimous agreement emerged that putting paid corporate information on the center page where we all create objective content was unacceptable and misleading to readers who trust us.

Well-known journalists, writers, and/or book authors who blog at SB warned management about critical issues regarding conflicts of interest in media and that basic tenets of journalistic ethics extend even to privately-held, online organizations – if they intend to be perceived as credible by the rest of the world. To ignore such principles would make SB and Seed the laughing stock of academic and corporate journalism.

Bloggers who helped launch SB argued that the hard-earned reputation they built at the network should not be open for pay-to-play by anyone, most of all a corporation that was already writing the blog at their own site.

Others argued about how a blog written by corporate representatives might differ or not from previous sponsored blogs where unaffiliated bloggers provided content. Some were just outright opposed because the company has a history of working too closely with a military government guilty of ethnic cleansing and other offenses. Others felt that every corporation has skeletons in their closet and that it is difficult to draw the line as to what money SB should or shouldn’t take. Some felt that we all use products from this company and that we are as complicit in their wrongdoings as our demand for petroleum is of BP’s debacle. SB management shared with bloggers the precarious nature of their financial situation and the need to take steps for continued viability. Some bloggers threatened to leave the network if the plans moved forward. Others were going to leave anyway because of a pre-existing condition of community erosion, late payments, and loss of transparency and communication.

The reality
But like the dream, the contentious and rancorous discussion didn’t happen before SB moved ahead and launched the corporate blog. Instead, these discussions played out in public and were followed by a confidential-to-bloggers, tin-eared missive from the boy-leader so heavily laden with corporate-speak that its leak was obviously anticipated. All of the discussion points and questions raised by Adam Bly in that letter could have been addressed in private conversations with the ScienceBlogs community in advance of the PepsiCo blog launch – a catastrophic folly that many of us first learned from Twitter, then from an official communication from ScienceBlogs two-and-a-half hours after the blog launched.

The condescending tone of his letter was an insult to the bloggers and demonstrated his lack of understanding of what he had done wrong.

Instead, it was left to departing and on-hiatus bloggers, as well as the rest of the world, to point out to ScienceBlogs management how fatally misguided this venture was.

The missed opportunity
When one goes to the PepsiCo page, one will see that use of their products is unavoidable. If you live in areas without access to a farmer’s market or you don’t have the income to buy healthier alternatives, you have even less choice. While I don’t consume soft drinks outside of an occasional locally-made Cheerwine, I hadn’t realized that PepsiCo makes some healthy products I use such as Naked Juice and Izze fruit juice based-sparkling waters. As a Coloradan, I enjoyed when Dave Taylor wrote this congratulatory post to Boulder-based Izze on their acquisition by Pepsi. And as a graduate of the University of Florida, I also use with great pride their Gatorade products out of reverence to the renal physiologist, the late Dr. J. Robert Cade, whose research in the 1960s with Florida Gators football players in “The Swamp” transformed professional and recreational sports.

As I debated my own long-term plans here and watched many beloved colleagues announce their departure from ScienceBlogs, I spoke a great deal with my wife, an internist and medical oncologist now expanding her training in a master’s in public health program and preventive medicine residency. Her focus is nutrition policy in prevention of childhood obesity and diabetes. I thought initially that she would have a convulsion about the whole PepsiCo debacle.

But while she understood the ethical offenses and the objections to a lack of prior communication by ScienceBlogs and Seed with the bloggers, she actually expressed interest in knowing more about PepsiCo’s real motivations and science-based plans to be responsive to increasing governmental encroachment in the food industry. Why would PepsiCo even want to have a place at ScienceBlogs?

Academic physician-scientists like her, and PhDs who conduct translational research, live in a different world than many of us academics. Her background is such that she has had to work in an ethically-valid manner with pharmaceutical companies in an academic medical center to provide cutting-edge care to the women with breast cancer she used to treat. Without institutionally- and professionally-acceptable relationships with drug companies, patient care would suffer – in the short term but not having access to experimental therapies and in the long run by not having access to drugs that emerged following clinical trials.

In her new career, she recognizes that to affect public nutrition policy, she will have to strike similar relationships with food companies and will be called upon to apply the same ethical, conflict-of-interest rubric to those relationships.

Again, complications aside, she asked me when else I’d have an opportunity to engage in a blog format with scientists, physicians, and other decision makers in the food industry. I doubt seriously that the PepsiCo blog was going to be any more than a PR stunt that latched its rasping scolex on the reputation built here by fellow bloggers.

But she asked me to assume for a moment that some ethically acceptable agreement had been reached that permitted a PepsiCo blog to be cordoned off at ScienceBlogs. Assuming that a PepsiCo blog would truly be interactive and not the press-release-disguised-as-blog like their own hosted version of Food Frontiers, we might actually have been able to learn what a multinational food company was really doing, scientifically, to modify foods to meet public demand (“don’t you dare take my salt from my crackers”) and minimize health risks to those who have no choice but to buy their products.

I routinely have a chance to interact with my colleagues in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries at my regional and national scientific conferences. But my wife aske me when else might my fellow bloggers and readers might have a chance to have a direct dialogue with people trained like us who now occupy high positions in a global food company – an organization whose influence on human health is much greater than any drug.

So I again looked at the biographies of the individuals who were purported to provide content here. Mehmood Khan, M.D., is an internist and endocrinologist who had recently directed a clinical trials unit on diabetes and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic and had been on the faculty the Department of Food, Sciences and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Assuming that he would personally write about the nutritional challenges in the food industry and not some ghost-authored promotional content, I actually would have been very interested to know what kind of science is being done to provide healthier foods.

Even in my post yesterday, I noted another proposed author, Dr. George Mensah, is a former CDC leader of cardiovascular disease risk who trained at Cornell and Washington University following undergraduate work at Harvard. Again, if his intention was truly to engage with scientific minds and not just spew some corporate lines, there might have been an opportunity to learn something from a highly-credentialed, former academic who was recruited to a major, global food company. This Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview with him on why he went corporate really piqued my interest in his scientific views.

Yes, yes – perhaps the engagement I might have anticipated would never have come. Even if these people were writing true science and public health, they would have been doing it as paid advertising masquerading under the ScienceBlogs brand.

The changes announced yesterday to make Food Frontiers more explicitly labeled as an “advertorial” are laughable and weak at best – another insult to the intelligence of both you and me that shows the lack of managerial self-awareness that continues to feed the blogger diaspora. Go to the page and tell me if you can see where it says “advertorial” – it’s like trying to spot the FDA disclaimer on a bottle of herbs.

Sadness
I have been exceedingly proud to be picked in 2006 to write at ScienceBlogs in their second wave of bloggers. Virologist Vincent Racaniello asked yesterday on Twitter why anyone would want to have joined this network.

This would be my answer last week: I am an ambassador for my research field of natural products cancer pharmacology and saw in 2005 that most blog information of herbs and non-botanical supplements was misleading and written in a conspiratorial tone. Being invited to join ScienceBlogs gave me an international bully pulpit to combat misinformation about drugs derived from natural sources

Being here has brought a large number of relationships into my personal and professional life that I likely would not have had as a solo blogger on Blogspot. The ScienceBlogs frontpage and Last 24 Hours channel allows those coming with peripheral interests to stumble upon our content that might seem interesting. Being here also allows original news that one writes to be indexed by Google News, something that doesn’t happen with most individual blogs. As I’ve developed real professional interests in journalism over the last seven or eight years, I feel that being at ScienceBlogs has given me a level of credibility with RealJournalists™ and the ability to obtain press credentials that have allowed me, for example, to personally interview a recently-minted Nobel laureate.

Most of all, being here has given me the chance to know online and in-person some amazing people – writers, scientists, current and former academicians – who I would never have met in the myopic world of my local research institution.

Sadly, many of these people have left ScienceBlogs. To be frank, I am very angry that this community has been taken away from me by the lack of foresight by people who are paid to know better.

It did not have to be this way.

Transparency. Communication. Respect.

That gets you a long way in this world, no matter what you do.

As of the writing of this post, there has been no further communication from ScienceBlogs management to its bloggers.

The silence is deafening, especially when bloggers are being contacted with numerous other opportunities.

I’m still not sure that a PepsiCo blog could have been acceptably hosted anywhere here at ScienceBlogs. But had it been approached by seeking the professional expertise of bloggers and the tapping into community discussions that once existed at this network, we could have saved management from themselves.

You reap what you sow.

Update: Adam Bly announced at 10:27 EDT that Food Frontiers has been removed from ScienceBlogs. In his post at Page 3.14, he asks for input:

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.

If you’re still reading, I encourage you to add your two cents below or over there.

Comments

  1. #1 Ronald Ladouceur
    July 8, 2010

    As a full-time marketer with a strong hobby interest in the history of science, this story resonates particularly strongly with me.

    Encouraging my clients (including a few in the “functional foods” category) to blog and tweet about the latest industry ‘advances’ and newest exploitable market opportunities takes me right to the ethical edge (and often over) almost daily.

    The relative cheapness of social media channels, combined with the endless demand to keep the pressure high in the content fire hose, combined with the dream of big money (hate that word ‘monitize!’) is creating all kinds of monsters and causing all kinds of troubles.

    What’s happening here on ScienceBlogs is similar to what happened with Facebook a few weeks ago – the ‘owners’ broke faith with the users by selling contributor-created equity that those contributors had not volunteered – authority and objectivity at SB, connections and other private data at FB. Who knows, perhaps the powers-that-be here were emboldened by the noisy but ultimately fruitless protest there. Few folks ended up signing off Facebook.

    Can a forum such as this survive corporate sponsorship?

    A Pepsi-authored blog seems out of the question. But a Pepsi-sponsored blog that allows a free flow of information between food and nutrition scientists seems possible. The biggest unknown if such a sponsored forum can include voices from within the corporation. Antonio Gramsci, anyone?

    As the author writes, the only way to explore this landscape and chart its boundaries is through a process that values: “Transpareny. Communication. Respect.”

  2. #2 maryn
    July 8, 2010

    An excellent and thoughtful explication; thank you.

    And “I am very angry that this community has been taken away from me by the lack of foresight by people who are paid to know better” exactly speaks for me.

  3. #3 outeast
    July 8, 2010

    You – and your wife – are so damned right.

    My first response when I heard of this debacle was actually pretty much like that of your wife; I thought it could really be interesting, at least provided things were made clear and all interests were declared.

    Then I read the FF inaugural post…

    I work in commercial market research, so I deal with marketing bs every damn day… and the content of that post has a very familiar ring. Trainwreck it is.

    Funny thing is, this really shoots Pepsi in the foot PR-wise.

  4. #4 bsci
    July 8, 2010

    This is the best post on the issue yet. The specific company is only one part of the much larger managerial competence issues. If things are as bad as you make them sound and management doesn’t get a clue, I’d be shocked if any of the top bloggers are still here in a month.

    I do wonder if another recent event here made the management think this wouldn’t be an issue. They’ve been adding blogs to Brookhaven Nation Labs, CERN, SETI, and the Weitzmann Institute. These were all welcomed with a reasonable amount of enthusiasm even though they are also (non-profit) corporate blogs run through public relations departments. They weren’t based on existing blogs and it’s never been clear if they are also paid advertisements. Perhaps the lack of push-back on these made the management think there would be an issue with a for-profit company. I’m not justifying the decision, but just trying to peer into the thought process.

  5. #5 ponderingfool
    July 8, 2010

    Assuming that a PepsiCo blog would truly be interactive and not the press-release-disguised-as-blog like their own hosted version of Food Frontiers,
    ……..
    So I again looked at the biographies of the individuals who were purported to provide content here. Mehmood Khan, M.D., is an internist and endocrinologist who had recently directed a clinical trials unit on diabetes and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic and had been on the faculty the Department of Food, Sciences and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota.
    **************************************
    Considering your opinion of Food Frontiers ala pepsicoblog.com, it should be noted Mehmood Khan posted the following pieces on that website:
    ‘Performance with Purpose’ at PepsiCo’s Senior Management Meeting
    By: Mehmood Khan | March 28, 2010
    http://foodfrontiers.pepsicoblogs.com/2010/03/performance-with-purpose-at-pepsicos-senior-management-meeting/
    The Promise of PepsiCo: Announcing Global Goals
    By: Mehmood Khan | March 22, 2010
    http://foodfrontiers.pepsicoblogs.com/2010/03/the-promise-of-pepsico-announcing-global-goals/

    Are those the press release type posts you were referring to?

  6. #6 Jon H
    July 8, 2010

    It would have helped tremendously if they had actually had some representative posts ready to go on the day the blog went live. At least then we’d have more to go on than the PR-speak intro.

    Instead, what we see demonstrates that there isn’t exactly a scientist there raring to go and a lot to say on the blog, so it’s probably waiting for their PR department to get around to pooping out some vapid memo as a blog post.

  7. #7 Pascale
    July 8, 2010

    The food scientists who will “translate” nutritional research are going to be working for industry, not academia. The lack of prior consideration, communication, and transparency in this affair was criminal, but the inclusion of a “corporate” blog might not be such a bad idea.
    Many Sciblings use a pseudonym. Do we really have an idea of who they work for or what conflicts they might have? Nope. For all we know, some may be highly paid corporate consultants. Yet we trust them because they tell us their primary employer is an unnamed university.
    Bottom line: everything on the internet, even at ScienceBlogs, needs to be taken with a grain (or a gram) of NaCl.

  8. #8 rork
    July 8, 2010

    I have a question that is distracting, but never have found the right time to ask, not that this is the right time:

    Are writers here compensated, and how? Point me to where I can learn about that.

    I mean no disrespect, especially to this writer, I’m just somewhat new, terribly ignorant (accept my apology for that), and want to know how these things work.

  9. #9 Benson
    July 8, 2010

    “The food scientists who will “translate” nutritional research are going to be working for industry, not academia.”

    Pascale that’s a good point, however this doesn’t mean that their research is any less valid. I’d argue that by not hiding behind the veil of “academia” put them more in the public eye. At least we know what their agenda is, as opposed to the bloggers here who hyperventilated over what happened.

    Now that this episode is coming to an end, what I’ve learned about ScienceBlogs is that instead of remaining curious and wanting to engage in open debate, most of the people here are as dogmatically rigid in their mindset as the most fervent religious believer. And that’s a damn shame.

  10. #10 Jon H
    July 8, 2010

    “The food scientists who will “translate” nutritional research are going to be working for industry, not academia.”

    Mark Chu-Carroll works in industry, at Google, and blogs (blogged) about math and computer science. He didn’t promote Google.

    You can certainly have industry people blogging about their field without it being corporate propaganda.

  11. #11 Brian V
    July 8, 2010

    well, you blog under a psuedonym. we don’t know who you are. why should we trust what you have to say? you’re braying for transparency while hiding behind a nom de plume. now, i think the pepsi blog does not belong on scienceblogs. but how can us readers possible know what conflicts of interest you have? we can’t. uncloak yourself or stop demanding transparency.

  12. #12 Liz
    July 8, 2010

    Great post. I’ve confined my comments so far to the need to have a clear distinction between editorial and advertising, and I’m still grappling with the whole “engagement” piece. Your wife’s work with pharmaceutical companies is a good example of how engagement is important, but I’m having a hard time thinking of the analogous PepsiCo example.

    There are obviously policy arguments to have, like whether soda or other junk food should be taxed differently or advertising to certain audiences should be restricted or banned. Was the idea that bloggers and commenters would debate these kinds of policies with PepsiCo?

    I can see the value for readers in learning more about what kinds of challenges PepsiCo’s food scientists are facing. Michael Moss wrote an interesting NYT article a few months ago about the role of salt in processed foods (it masks bitter flavors, enhances other flavors, and let manufacturers get away with using cheaper ingredients), and it was a useful window into just how hard it is to make what seems to many of us like a simple recipe change. So, if the blog was designed to explain “look, we’re trying to make things healthier, but these are the hurdles,” I can see that working and making for intersting reading. But are they expecting chemists to comment and suggest doing X instead of Y?

    I guess I’d just have an easier time giving suggestions about engagement if I knew what the goal of engagement was. Can anyone give examples of a back-and-forth that might be helpful or enlightening? I’m having a hard time with the generalities.

  13. #14 perceval
    July 8, 2010

    Brian, a quick look at the archives will tell you at once who Abel is, where he works, and what he does for a living.

  14. #15 rork
    July 8, 2010

    Thanks DrugMonkey.
    Hardly full disclosure since N=1 and it’s not clear on what basis folks are paid (and I’m shocked at the lack of disclaimers by writers) but my wonder was more about what it would take to set up a new ScienceBlogs type affair, and see that it would take real money. Too bad, but perhaps you have to pay to get good things.

    Perhaps this PS from now on: “I’ve no financial incentive in my commenting. My identity is hidden, barely.”

  15. #16 DeLene
    July 9, 2010

    Great insight, Abel, very thoughtful. Since I don’t blog at Sb and I’m only vaguely familiar with internal management< =>blogger communication channels, my initial reaction was that I could understand their need for cash revenue and wanting to rent blog space to corporations, but I can not fathom why they would use the same space as the existing bloggers use. Newspapers have sold/rented space to advertisers for use, that is not new, but it is always clearly labeled as an ad or a special advertising section. It’s pernicious to sneak PR material into where consumers are accustomed to finding “real news,” which is what Sb management seemed to be complicit in doing (regardless of if they understood the ethical bind they were causing or if they were oblivious to it). Why not just create a separate Sb channel for corporate blogs — Sb-Corporate — or whatever. At least it will be clear to readers that the content is separate from the independent writers on the main Sb channel.

  16. #17 Lab Lemming
    July 10, 2010

    So, is the industry bar that they would have to establish themselves as a good source of science education while under their own corporate label before migrating to science blogs? If they did that, should they still pay to play, or is the benefit of having independent quality that they play by the same rules as everyone else?

  17. #18 aidel
    July 11, 2010

    Abel, your honesty, intelligence, integrity and commitment to public service are stunning. When I read your posts, I always have to pick my jaw up off the floor because it is so rare to find a person who so consistently — in word and deed — upholds the highest possible standards of respect, fairness and justice, but also has tremendous talent as a writer. Regarding the content: Your partner makes an excellent and valid point and it *would* be interesting if transparency is a given. Also in the medical field, I’ve had to deal (to some extent) with drug and (even more) medical equipment and organ donor organizations, and often (even if you are “just a nurse”) this requires delicate negotiations. I think sometimes one has to ask herself a bottom-line sort of question: What is this organization that I’m dealing with really about? If the answer is a straight forward “making a profit” without any qualifying ands or buts, then expecting a meaningful and informative dialog is probably unrealistic. IMHO, Seed/Sb has crossed a line that is unforgivable and there should be consequences (like a mass exodus). Period. Bloggers (and writers) must “self-police” if they expect to maintain autonomy and credibility. Any blogger who respects her/his readers must draw the line, in other words, Sbers with a modicum of self/reader respect must leave Sb. Sad, devastating and disappointing, yes — but absolutely necessary. If PepsiCo is truly interested in the health of their customers, then they can start an advertising campaign encouraging people to drink water and eat more vegetables.

    #8: I’ll tell you: I’m related to a person who blogs for an organization very much like Sb. He probably gets medium traffic, definitely not the most popular kid on the block. For most bloggers, that’s beer money but for some (us), that’s grocery money. The arrival of the actual checks is slow and inconsistent. Probably only a handful of bloggers out there do it *for* the money but that doesn’t mean that some bloggers out there really, really *need* the money.

  18. #19 aidel
    July 11, 2010

    Sorry, #8, I left out the punch line. $100/month.

  19. #20 Mike Poller
    July 13, 2010

    Grass is green, sky is blue and ads are ads. When you view an ad or click on a link, you know you are getting paid commercial speech. An ads mere existence clues the reader in to context…
    PepsiCo should run their own blog, with their own scientists saying whatever, whenever. Then, PepsiCo gives $$$ to ScienceBlogs to run linked ads here. ScienceBlogs pays authors here. Everybody wins. And when SB readers click the link, they know what to expect.

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