Mouth wide shut/ Soumyadeep Paul, cc-by 2.0, flickr

How Scientific American Screws it Up Big Time

That’s not how it works

Yesterday, the Twittersphere woke up to the news that popular science magazine Scientific American has removed a blog post from its platform. Written by SciAm’s contributor Danielle Lee (@DNLee5), the post related an unpleasant exchange Lee had with a Biology Online staff member, Ofek, asking her to contribute content for free:

“Regarding payment, truthfully, we don’t pay guestbloggers. Even Dr. Michael Joyner, who is an internationally recognized expert in his field did not receive payment.”

DNLee, a biologist and science communicator who “draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups”, politely declined the invitation. In response, Ofek graciously reacted:

“Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

This treatment apparently didn’t appeal to Danielle Lee, who wrote a post on her SciAm hosted blog “Urban Scientist” about integrity and also recorded a video explaining:

“For far too long the assumption has been that if you’re a woman, or a person of color, or from a lower socio-economic status, that folks think they can get you, your talent, your expertise, and your energy for free.”

While the video hasn’t been taken down by YouTube, SciAm did remove the blogpost. SciAm’s editor-in-chief Mariette di Christina tweeted that Scientific American is “is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” Biology Online happens to be a SciAm partner, but “this is not a factor”, said di Christina.

Whatever the factor, fact is that Scientific American censored content discussing scientific integrity, content authored by a woman of colour. Many scientists and science writers reacted in support of DNLee, a (female) SciAm contributor showing on SciAm’s pages that she didn’t buy the not-scientific-enough-content:

“I almost never write about discovering science, and in fact write frequently about oppression and privilege. But when a black woman writes about an oppressive experience, it is grounds for removal. Folks, this is Ally Work 101: it doesn’t matter your intent, what matters is the impact. Silencing a black woman who just got called an “urban whore” is sexist, racist, silencing behavior. It is wrong, and it is shameful.”

And as the story generally goes in such cases, this was episode 41678424684413574 of Streisand effect: a whole bunch of bloggers reposted the removed blog post as per DNLee’s request (I’ve also reblogged it and curated a Storify with reactions). Fellow (female) scientist writing under the pen name Dr. Isis, also composed an open letter to SciAm explaining why she started calling on colleagues to boycott the magazine:

“What you’ve taught me today is that you do not share my values. You may post glossy, sexy pictures of science, but you are not interested in discovery. You do not value truth, honesty and integrity — the core values that I hold most dear as a scientist. Most importantly, you did not empower my friend. You shut her down when she shared that she had not been respected. You put the dollar before the scientist.
I can’t read you anymore, Scientific American because there is truly nothing scientific about you.
What I can do, is to support my friend and fellow scientist and I can ask my fellow readers and scientists to join me in boycotting your publication.”

More comments, highlighting the coincidental removal of a post from a women of colour in science, abounded as other news outlets drew attention to the story:

“SciAm Blogs has not in the past removed posts that aren’t “sciency” or “professional” enough. I’ve read posts on it about sexism in academia, sexism in general, about copyright theft (one of their bloggers is a spectacularly good photographer & entomologist) and more. Women in science (and women of color in science) being mistreated for their sex or race is a reality and a regular subject of science blogs on SciAm and elsewhere. DNLee calling out such an egregious and pointed example is a perfectly normal subject. Worse, the person who called her a whore is the editor for a site that SciAm has an affiliate relationship with! It’s not some random guy and some random internet snit. She didn’t write about how some guy with 40 followers on twitter called her a whore. She wrote about how the editor of an affiliated science blog site called her a whore. For refusing to work (professionally!) for free.”

Scientists have naturally called on Bora Zivkovic, the SciAm Blogs editor, to respond. Thus far, Bora has retweeted Mariette di Christina’s positions, and solely commented:

“Sorry for delay, hard to find ppl on a long weekend. I contacted bloggers with info. Not all info available yet. Public statement later.”

Neither someone from SciAm’s staff nor someone from Nature Publishing Group (SciAm’s owner) has addressed the censorship for now.