Of Pepsi and ScienceBlogs... [Common Knowledge]

I've gotten a few emails about the Pepsi-ScienceBlogs tempest. It's clearly taken a toll on ScienceBlogs' credibility. Some of my SciBlings have resigned in protest, and others are taking shots on the topic.

Sponsorship is part of scientific publishing, even in the peer reviewed world. Remember how Merck published an entire fake journal to promote Vioxx? How much money gets spent on reprints that support a company's position, on articles paid for with corporate research funds?

Today's hullaballoo is more honest than either of those. My gut reaction is: calm down, world. This was a miserable rollout in which a lack of transparency and community engagement turned a little fire into a conflagration.

I'm not going to resign my blog here, at least, not now. I am not a sponsored blog. I receive salary from my (non profit) employer, Creative Commons, and I also take in a little consulting revenue and the odd speaking fee, all in the service of promoting the digital commons. I am checking with all my arrangements to see if I'm allowed to fully disclose, and if I can, I'll publish my list here.

I also know Adam Bly pretty well on a personal level. He's a good guy. In full disclosure, he's been a supporter of Creative Commons personally, and Seed supports the organization professionally as well. But I don't think that colors my opinion today. He's not out to sell bad science; he's out to transform scientific publishing on the internet. I have no doubt that this decision was arrived at after lengthy debate and internal argument.

But I don't know anything more than what I've read on the internet. I filter my SB mail for reading once a week or so, as I get too much email every day as there is. So I found out about this when my twitter feed exploded today.

I am sanguine about the realities of running a site like ScienceBlogs. It's not free. I've run a company. I know what it's like to hire people in fat times and to lay them off in lean times, how hard it is to tell investors that the revenues are drying up. It's a perspective that is hard earned. It's a reality that forces decisions in support of shareholders, not just in support of bloggers and readers. And in a massive recession that becomes even more true.

But that perspective means that the choice is understandable, not that the situation was handled well. If a site like SB is going to do this, then the entire process must be painfully transparent. I've watched as sites I love, like Fark.com and some of the various Gawker blogs, began to accept sponsored links - but they are LABELED as such. These SB blogs need to be plastered with the fact that they are indeed bought space, bought by companies, not by individuals thinking freely (like the rest of us). Different graphic design, disclaimer text in the templates, that sort of thing. I would personally love to see an piece of RDFa that my browser can auto-ignore, just as I block pop-up ads.

This screenshot makes it pretty clear it's sponsored, and that it's "advertorial" content. It's a good start, though too late to stop the frenzy that is an internet blamestorm.

It's not something that can be done post-hoc, is the problem. The distinguishing between content and advertisement needs to be done in a fashion that is transparent to the community at large, because although the decision to accept sponsored blogs may help shareholders, it affects the people who the sponsored blogs want to associate with (us free thinking bloggers) and those they want to read the sponsored blogs (that's you, people). And we're the community that got smeared by the rollout.

That's the anger, that's what is driving the reaction here. We weren't consulted (the royal we) in advance. And even if we hadn't said anything smart or interesting, getting the chance to chime in on this type of thing would have released the tension in a way that created more trust, not less trust. I'm going to argue for more transparency from SB as to their finances and decisionmaking, but I'm not going to leave because of one false step.

Because I've made some myself, and I believe in treating others as I would like to be treated.

Obviously, I reserve the right to change my mind as new data rolls in. If the site continues to display the sort of tin ear it has displayed in this one, then I'll have to refactor. But for today, I'm sticking around, and urging calm thinking and open minds.