Censorship, harassment at SciAm (Part 2)

It’s been a month since I started writing about the fallout at Scientific American.

By way of recap:

When Danielle Lee’s post went back up over the weekend, both SciAm’s editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina and blogs editor Bora Zivkovic continued to claim that they had taken it down for legal reasons.

In a statement, DiChristina acknowledged the shameful institutional silencing of minority, woman, and black voices in science, while never admitting that SciAm had fallen prey to it.

By and large, the community applauded SciAm and Bora for putting it back up. It was certainly the correct thing to do. But the continued rationale, the supposed illegality of the post, remains somewhat suspect.

What was missing was a repudiation of the DiChristina’s original tweet that “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” Neither was there affirmation that Scientific American would continue to be an outlet for the kinds of content that expand, explore, and challenge how science is integrated. In my mind, I still cannot square that tweet with the “legal” reasons that SciAm laid out.

But perhaps actions speak louder than words, and if in a year, or some other reasonable length of time, SciAm continues to do what it’s been doing, perhaps all will be forgiven.

But another reason, surely, why SciAm has escaped the scrutiny of its editorial mission is that a bigger scandal erupted, one that shook the community to its core.


During the third week of October, three woman—first, Monica Byrne, followed by Hannah Waters and Kathleen Raven—came forward to reveal that Bora Zivkovic had sexually harassed them. As a result, Zivkovic resigning from ScienceOnline, the science communication organization and conference that he co-founded, and his duties at SciAm.

And it led to even more stories, even more voices coming forward to share how harassment—and the failure of institutions and friends alike to repudiate and stop it—had hurt them. The hashtag #ripplesofdoubt, started by Karen James, became a stream of tears. The realization spread that Zivkovic had hurt not only those he directly harassed, but many other writers who were left wondering, variously, whether they had been passed over for a blog gig because they weren’t attractive enough, and whether they had gotten theirs only because they were.

#standingwithdnlee was, in some respects, a feel-good movement—the outrage was directed at a clearly defined target that everyone agreed deserved it. #ripplesofdoubt was wrenching and heartbreaking. It went beyond a professional foul to personal interactions. It was friends realizing how their friends had been hurt, and how their actions might have hurt others. I had friends who both bravely came forward with their doubts, and who were themselves accused of harassment. I was completely unsettled. Its consequences extended far beyond the SciAm network and reverberated through the science communication community.


In the real world, sex and access remain part of social and professional currency. That is the hard fact, but sensitive and rational people can strive to set policy to render it as valueless as possible. Zivkovic cruelly demonstrated how one person’s abuse of power can trigger a market crash of sorts, laying bare the illusory nature of the apparent strength of the exchange. It left so many wondering what exactly their success or failure had been built on. It left some deciding this particular market wasn’t worth it at all.

To talk about how it affects, say, the future of SciAm feels like scraping around on the fringes of a much bigger issue, and I feel awkward doing it. But perhaps that illustrates one point: As large as SciAm and its blogging network is, the community is and always will be bigger.

During #standingwithdnlee, the SciAm network itself notably and admirably remained the epicenter of criticism against their own editors. In contrast, in the aftermath of Zivkovic’s downfall, the community shifted from voicing outrage to listening to each other. The most essential interactions took place outside of SciAm’s network. Twitter was one, of course, by virtue of its long-established role as the watering hole for the #scicomm community.

Medium emerged as another. That Friday, Khalil Cassimally, who co-edited the SA Incubator blog with Zivkovic, posted his biweekly“Khalil’s picks” feature of the best of the week’s writing by young science writers. But he didn’t post it to SciAm’s network—instead, he posted it to Medium. (All of the featured picks were powerful responses to the fallout on blogs not associated with the SciAm network.)

And The Power of Harassment, a Medium collection curated by @LadyBits, became a powerful center of painful stories.

And yes, ok. The future of SciAm and the blog network itself? Well, I don’t have a good answer for that. When I left academia for science writing, the lack of a clearly defined path to a career was intimidating. It seemed like the closest thing to such a path ran through Zivkovic and SciAm. When I started thinking about this post, I wondered if that would still be true. One oft-repeated strain is that the community will suffer because of the loss of Zivkovic’s advocacy for young science writers, that part of the tragedy is that Zivkovic’s inappropriate behavior negated his own skill at community building.

I think there’s certainly truth to that. But it also seems clear that the two were inextricably linked. Yes, he built a community at SciAm and elsewhere. But it was apparently built upon an warped structure shaped by his own desires and weaknesses, the full callousness of which was for too long apparent to only a few—until that week in October.

Yes, that was a shitty, shitty week.

What made it bearable was the badass, flat-out courage of so many people. So I’m going to end this post by linking to one example: a post titled Look by Boston-based science writer Erin Podolak:

I don’t want to tell anyone what they should do, but I will tell you one very simple thing that you can do – look at it. If you do nothing else, I’m asking you not to turn away.

I, along with many others, am promising not to. You can hold me to it; we all should hold each other to it.

Censorship, harassment at SciAm (Part 1)

This post was always going to be about Scientific American’s blog network. I had planned it out that way from the beginning. But the events of the past week and a half have made it quite different from what it might otherwise would have been.

It would have talked about how the blog network is a vibrant community of scientists and writers covering everything from food science to astrophysics. It would have showed how the blog network, more than anything else at SciAm’s website, exemplified what I wrote in my last post—that its editorial mission extends not just to covering science, but the life experience of scientists. And it would have talked about the role of Bora Zivkovic in building it, and mentoring a new generation of science writers, one full of female and minority voices.

But over the past ten days, the science writing community was rocked to its core by censorship and revelations of sexual harassment, with SciAm at the epicenter. What began as an outpouring of outrage over the silencing of one of its own writers—and support for her, a black female voice in a field with too few of them—quickly spiraled into revelations of Zivkovic’s impropriety that tore the community apart with a heart-wrenching dialog about the ripples of sexual harassment and privilege.


It started when blogger Danielle Lee, who writes a blog called The Urban Scientist was called an “urban whore” by the editor of a biology blog that, according to SciAm’s website, was part of SciAm’s “Partner Network”. The editor, known only as Ofek, had inquired about Danielle Lee writing for the site—for free—which she politely declined. Upon being insulted, Lee wrote about it on her blog publishing the email conversation and appropriately calling the editor out—only for SciAm to remove it without telling her. This was 5 pm on Friday, October 11.

By way of explanation, SciAm’s editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina tweeted:

This was patently ridiculous, as former SciAm blogger Christie Wilcox noted:

The tweet links to one of her old posts at SciAm, which one commenter found off-topic. Bora responded:

This is Christie’s space to post whatever she wants. And yes, there is even science it, though it does not need to be anyway.

Instead of further recapping here (and by way of pointing out just how much attention it drew), I’ll instead direct you to the coverage from BuzzFeed, Slate, Jezebel, the IB Times, and the Huffington Post.

I will point out, pertinent to the purpose of this blog, that during this period, SciAm was hosting some of its own harshest critics, with many of its bloggers using words like “absolutely unacceptable,” . One openly taunted her editor, writing “This is not a post about discovering science.” … eleven times, adding:

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.

At one point during it, people began to speculate whether SciAm’s network was on the verge of a mass exodus of its own bloggers, similar to what befell the once-dominant ScienceBlogs.com network in 2010. (That revolt was also prompted by an episode of managerial deafness when its owner, Seed Media, sold a spot in their network to PepsiCo without notifying its blogging community.)

It underscored the extent to which its bloggers have always felt part of their own community, dating back long before print media players like SciAm, Discover, National Geographic had their own blogging networks.

At the time, one of the most prominent to leave was Bora Zivkovic, who foretold of a “network of networks” of science blogs—and then moved on to Scientific American to form one of the most prominent of those networks.

He amplified the voices of women in science and minorities. He helped dozens of young science writers break into the field. He mentored them, encouraged them (including me, and this very blog), and on occasion, invited them to join the SciAm network.

And such was the confidence that people had in Bora that throughout it all, even as people poured Twitter outrage onto @sciam, many expressed belief that @BoraZ would set everything right.

— PZ Myers (@pzmyers) October 12, 2013

And after the long holiday weekend, the post did indeed go back up. SciAm maintained that the original takedown was “for legal reasons,” a rationale that many picked apart. Ken Fisher, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Ars Technica, called it “timidity” and “a convenient excuse”:

Here’s a little secret: you can almost always pull an article for “legal reasons” because you can always dream those reasons up. There are always potential legal implications to publishing something. … Hiding behind “we couldn’t verify the facts” is ridiculous when the author of the post had screenshots of the very e-mails in question. Plus, not a single soul has come forth to dispute the facts (and if SciAm wants us to believe that it fact-checks everything on its blog network, it must think we’re fools).

Part 2 coming…

On “The Dignity of a Porn Star” and SciAm’s editorial mission

dignity_porn_star

In my first post, I mentioned the essay “The Dignity of a Porn Star,” and noted that despite being published by Scientific American, “it doesn’t have a shred of ‘science’ in it.” I said that I thought it was one of the best things on their site that week, but I want to clarify why.

First, instead of saying “a shred of ‘science’,” maybe I should have written “a shred of explanation.” Because unlike, say, a piece about Syria’s chemical weapons, which contains difficult science, explains it, and connects it to real-world issues, this piece has no scientific knowledge to convey, nothing to explain. This piece could have appeared as a commentary in Salon, or Slate, or any arts and culture outlet, and SciAm could choose to stay out of this arena.

But they didn’t. And to me, it felt like an editorial statement. Not, “We also reserve the right to mix things up by publishing non-science pieces.” Rather, it asserted that the piece is an important scientific perspective—not because it comes from a “knowledge-based perspective”, but because it is written from the perspective of a scientist. Publishing it asserts that scientists can contribute to the public dialogue based not just on their scientific knowledge, but also the life experience they acquire in a career of science.

That is, scientific perspectives include the life experience of a doctor who spends his career staring into the tranquil eyes of patients ravaged by a deadly illness for which there is no cure. They include the childhood experience of a scientist who languished in special education classes before finding his potential. They include how a economic and racial background of a biologist’s grandparents shapes the way she views the food on her plate every day.

So often we hear critics telling scientists who advocate to “stick to the science.” But by publishing these voices, SciAm proclaims that scientists have meaningful perspectives—scientific perspectives—conferred by their life experience, and that they should be heard.

It warms my heart and mind to these kinds of scientific voices becoming increasingly prolific, particularly in innovative online outlets like Nautilus and Aeon. There, as on SciAm’s site, gifted writers who are scientists are given space to blend their own experiences and reflections with their explorations of scientific issues—or rather, to assert that there was no boundary in the first place. I wholeheartedly approve.

The structure of SciAm’s site

Designing a website for a publication as sprawling as Scientific American cannot be easy. After hours of writing and rewriting this post, I still feel as if I’m only scratching the surface of the logic and compromises of designing a site like SciAm’s. You have to juggle all sorts of things, like managing its print identity vs. its online identity, and how to present a constellation of content that spans news, features, blogs, videos, and podcasts.

So let’s start by taking a look at ScientificAmerican.com’s layout. Here’s the homepage as it appears on my 13″ MacBook Air. It has a three column layout, with the main slot section taking up two columns.

abovethefold

In broad outlines, I like the layout’s appearance—its minimalistic white background, with subtle shading around certain elements. It’s clean and each element seems to have space to breathe. I also love the section (off the bottom of the screenshot) that embeds the latest editions of SciAm’s long-running daily series of 60 Second Science podcasts. On so many sites, interesting podcasts tend to get buried. The 60 Second Science series is slick, well-produced, and you can play them without leaving the homepage.

There are a few layout things that bug me. (It’s always easier to spot those, isn’t it?) For example, the text feels a bit small for me, especially for a serif font. The video player is tiny—less than 200 pixels high—and makes it difficult to share content from the homepage.[1] And most of the third column doesn’t concern me. I love the “See what we’re tweeting about” widget; it’s an eclectic window into the community of contributors. But below it, it’s all partner content—innovation contests, news from other sites, and job listings.

But how well does the homepage function? If a homepage is meant to be a portal, how good is it at sucking you into the site? How well does it feature content? And does it give you a clear picture of the organization of the site? Here’s where I really struggled to make sense of the site.

Start with the navbar, which is chock-full with what seems like a bewildering array of options and suboptions. But after a while, I started to realize that the navbar is less an index of sections than it is a tag selector. The navbar buttons aren’t walled sections—they’re different ways to select sub-groups of the content. Hovering over “News & Features” reveals a dropdown of article types, including News, Features, Q&As, and In-Depth Reports (which are themselves pages that group News, Features, and Q&As centered around a particular theme, like their recent food issue).

newsandfeatures

Move one over to the “Topics” category and you get a dropdown of essentially the same content, but grouped into categories based on subject—Energy & Sustainability, Mind & Brain, Space, Evolution, etc. Clicking on any of them presents content in that topic from all of SciAm’s types of media—news, features, blogs, podcasts, video.

topics

On an abstract level, this appeals to my inner geek; tagging is a powerful way to select and filter content to find exactly what you want. The downside is you have to know exactly what you want. Instead of bringing content up to you, SciAm’s navbar makes you go to it.

Contrast SciAm’s approach with that of web magazines like Slate, Salon, or Discover.

salon_dropdown

Their navbars are arranged simply by topic. Hover over one of them and you get a dropdown of recent stories in that section, bringing up more content to the front page. But hover over one of SciAm’s categories and you just get a dropdown of more categories.

One more nit to pick. I’m going to lay the “News & Features” dropdown side-by-side with the “Topics” dropdown to illustrate:

sidebyside

Why is there an “Extreme Tech” section under the “News & Features” tab when the “Topics” tab right next to it has “Technology” as an option? Is Extreme Tech a subsection of the Technology section? Is a “Mind Matters” section necessary when there is a “Mind & Brain” category next door?[2]  I’m not sure.

Perhaps “Extreme Tech” and “Mind Matters” were once the names of columns or regular features, either in the print edition or an earlier version of the site (I’ll have to check this out). (Maybe this also explains why the homepage says “Science Agenda” above the top articles, which seems rather inexplicable to a web-only user.[3]) Nevertheless, online, these cute names seem redundant and uninformative.

Overall, although I find the appearance of the site inviting and clean, the structure of its web of content feels bewildering and opaque.

One more point: I know it’s easy to sit here and point out things that rub me the wrong way to collect credit on my class assignment, but like I said at the top, I also know that redesigning a site is hard—and expensive. I know publications—ones that I respect hugely—that would love to redesign their websites but simply can’t afford it in this environment. Nothing’s ever perfect.

Ok, that’s all I want to say about the layout for now. I haven’t even mentioned the vast blogging network so far, which makes up something like a majority of SciAm’s online content. That deserves a post of its own. Next week I’ll try to focus more on content.


  1. There are no buttons to press to tweet or Facebook them, or even an obvious way to link to the video’s permanent page. It turns out that right-clicking the video’s name in the list below the player lets you copy a permalink to the video’s page. That’s not immediately obvious, however, because left-clicking on those links don’t actually bring you to those pages—it only starts the video in the embedded player.  ↩
  2. Also, the “Citizen Science” section falls under the Education dropdown while also having its own spot on the navbar right next to it. citizen_science_navbar  ↩
  3. To make things even more confusing, the Science Agenda is an op-ed section in the print edition, but it carries no such distinction online.  ↩

A look at Scientific American

When I found out I would be tracking Scientific American this semester I got all excited because I’ve been a fan for quite a long time. But I was also excited because I realized I had previously been intimately familiar with only a subset of SciAm’s offerings—mostly its long-running podcasts and the SA Incubator blog for early-career science journalists. It’s not that I didn’t read SciAm—I probably read a half dozen articles on its site a week. But I would rely on my personal media bubble (RSS, Twitter, and Facebook) to guide me to the content. This week I’ll try to look at some of the rest of the content on its site that I’ve been missing.

SciAm Homepage

Obviously, SciAm sets itself apart from many of the other sites we’re tracking in that it’s focused on science. But with its roots as a print magazine, its online realm has less in common with the science sections of outlets like the BBC and NBC and more in common with Salon or The New Republic. It mixes news and reporting with analysis and commentary—and occasionally, a strong editorial viewpoint.

Exhibit A: SciAm devoted its feature coverage in its September 6 print issue entirely to food. In an editorial, its editors came down firmly against the growing movement to require labeling of foods that include genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They noted there is no scientific evidence showing GMOs are unsafe to eat, and argued that requiring labels would feed a stigma that threatens to stifle the environmental and economic benefits of GM crops, particularly in the developing world. In the print edition, this was accompanied by a feature article by David H. Freedman that expanded upon the same points.

This issue also showcased the full breadth of SciAm’s online offerings, including its extensive blog network. Several of its blogging contributors wrote posts about the topic last week, including an approving post by the chemist Ashutosh Jogalekar, another one by Pamela Ronald at the Food Matters blog, and a post on SciAm’s Guest Blog for outside contributors by Tabitha M. Powledge. SciAm also reposted a 3-minute video from July titled, “What Is a Genetically Modified Food?” (Their answer: No different from the organisms we’ve been genetically modifying over thousands of years of human agriculture.)

Obviously, GMO labeling is a very controversial political issue. SciAm’s editorial attracted attention from other outlets, including Salon and the NY Daily News. Its comments section is full of people accusing SciAm of being in Monsanto’s pocket, of parroting the talking points of Big Agro. “I have the right to know what is in my food” is an oft-repeated argument with emotional appeal not easily swept aside.

But the only piece on SciAm that argues for labeling is Powledge’s guest post—and she doesn’t think that GMOs are bad. Rather, she thinks labeling will breed familiarity and eventually encourage people to eat more GMOs.

SciAm’s coverage is relatively one-sided, you might say—but so is the science. You won’t find a representative “opposing view” on SciAm’s site arguing GMOs are harmful because convincing evidence doesn’t exist. It’s a clear demonstration of the science writing adage that scientific objectivity is not the same as political objectivity (or that dreaded word “balance”), and also of the value of scientific coverage of political issues itself.

In my opinion, one of SciAm’s strengths is that its magazine perspective lends it the purview to tackle these political and societal issues head on. As another example, take this piece by Dina Fine Maron about how UN inspectors in Syria might chemically differentiate between military-grade sarin and the rebel-homebrew stuff. Or this Guest Blog post featured on its front page titled, “The Dignity of a Porn Star.” It’s a moving essay from a doctor who once treated an HIV positive patient who was a porn star, and a tribute to his calmness in the face of death. Besides the medical credentials of the author, there’s not a shred of “science” in it—and I think it’s one of the best things on their site right now.

One last observation: SciAm isn’t afraid to let the personalities of its wide array of contributors shine through, either. As I was writing this post, its Twitter firehose of contributors featured a series of tweets condemning two wildly misogynistic presentations at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in rather colorful terms. They came from philosopher Janet Stemwedel, who writes Doing Good Science, a SciAm blog on ethics in science.

Twitter firehose

Ok, enough plaudits for this week. Next time, I’ll look at how they package their content online and try to figure out what on earth is going on with their main navbar, which makes absolutely no sense to me right now.