Skip to Content
15Oct 2013

Slur sparks turmoil among science bloggers and at Scientific American.

Paul Raeburn

Early last Wednesday morning, Danielle N. Lee, who describes herself as a "hip hop maven" who "blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences" at Scientific American and elsewhere, received an email invitation to contribute to from somebody named Ofek, who said he was the blog editor there.

She asked what he paid for guest posts, and he wrote "truthfully, we don't pay guest bloggers," and went on to say that a guest post could draw traffic to her site. She politely declined.

His response, according to Lee's screenshot, was this:

Because we don't pay for blog entries?

Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?

"Did YOU JUST CALL ME A WHORE?" she replied.

Lee then gathered her thoughts and responded on Friday as many of us might--by preparing a post on this exchange for her blog--The Urban Scientist at Scientific American. She was angry, but she also managed to be both funny and insightful, not something many of us can pull off when we're enraged. She writes that what she wanted to say was, "Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!" But in her "official" response--an embedded video clip-- she settled for something a bit more reflective than that. "I was really taken aback that you responded so rudely," she says, before looking into the camera and saying "Let me make this clear..." Scholars and scientists, she said, should contribute to such things on their own terms. They shouldn't be bullied into working for nothing.

That's a highly reasonable and appropriate response to Ofek's almost unbelievable snarl. The post and a flurry of congratulatory tweets could have been the end of this story. 

But then Scientific American took the post down. And SciAm's editor in chief, Mariette diChristina, tweeted this:

In a substantial post at Wired, Maryn McKenna, who is also a columnist and contributing editor at Scientific American, wrote this about the tweet:

So let’s just unpack what happened. According to Dr. Lee, the only notice she received that her post was considered inappropriate was its vanishing from the blog site. SciAm did not communicate with her about it other than by the tweet above. And SciAm said nothing about the uncalled-for abuse of one of their bloggers by one of their partnership representatives.

The tweet unleashed a huge outpouring of criticism on Twitter, with many of the tweets carrying the hashtag #standingwithDNLee or #BoycottSciAm. No longer limited to one horrible slur and a rational response, the exchange had immediately become a serious controversy concerning the behavior of a Scientific American, an iconic institution.

By Sunday, DiChristina was back with a blog post saying SciAm was "committed to working to try to put this right as best we can." Acknowledging the "real and important issues regarding the treatment of women in science and women of color in science," she wrote that SciAm "could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post." She didn't say what the legal issues were, and it's difficult to imagine legal circumstances so dire that the post had to be removed immediately. She said she regretted "that we were not able to communicate our decision to Dr. Lee before removing the post."

She continued: "We intend to discuss how we can better investigate and publicize such problems in general and search for solutions with Dr. Lee and with the wider scientific community."

There was a further issue. McKenna pointed out in her post that Biology-Online was part of Scientific American's partner network. She linked to this page:

If you go there now, you will see no mention of Biology-Online. You will also find a new note that says, "This 'partnership network' is no longer active." But on Oct. 13, according to the internet archive Wayback Machine, Biology-Online was there, and the note was not. DiChristina wrote in her blog post that "Biology-Online is neither a part of Scientific American, nor a 'content partner.'" But it had been listed as such.

In the meantime, several other science bloggers republished Lee's post in its entirety. The fury continued to grow until yesterday afternoon, when Scientific American republished Lee's original post, with an editor's note. Biology-Online also issued an apology yesterday. Alan Weisleder, a partner in the company that owns Biology-Online, sent Lee an email saying he was "totally shocked," and that Ofek, the online editor who started all of this, had been fired.

I suspect that most of the people involved in this mess had good intentions. DiChristina is the first female editor of Scientific American, and she had to fight to get where she is. This is a person who is likely to understand the difficulties women face in science. Bora Zivkovic, Scientific American's blog editor, tweeted the following:

But the way it unfolded was deeply unfortunate, and the wounds will take some time to heal. As McKenna points out in a follow-up post today, Scientific American should be prepared to respond much more quickly; the Internet doesn't take weekends off.

Mistakes happen, but often, as in this case, failure to quickly rectify those mistakes makes the problem much, much worse. If Scientific American had sought legal advice before taking down Lee's post, if it had explained its actions more quickly and more thoroughly, and if it had been clearer about its "partner" relationship with Biology-Online, this would not have grown to such colossal size. And it would not have so offended so many of Scientific American's friends and allies.

The lesson here is not that we should never make mistakes. That might be nice, but it's not going to happen. The lesson is that when we make mistakes, we should correct them as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.

-Paul Raeburn









Thanks, Graham. Yes, it's from me. In my sensible, well-informed way, I somehow failed to get my name on the post. --John Rennie

I infer that the previous comment (which happens to be by far the most sensible and informed comment I've seen about this debacle) is from John Rennie.

Thanks for your assessment of this mess, Paul. The initial verbal assault against Dr. Danielle Lee by Ofek was unspeakable. Scientific American's removal of her post made the injury worse for her (and many others, obviously) because it bespoke betrayal and disregard for the racism and sexism at issue. Knowing Mariette and the others at Scientific American as I do, I don't believe for a moment that was their intention, or even an unconscious motive at work. But that's a personal perspective I can't expect others to share, and I don't offer it to contradict others' experience of what happened as racist and sexist.

I also agree that SciAm's failures to explain what it was doing, correct the record, and apologize adequately is the biggest cause of its woes at this point. When I read Mariette's full statement, I see her trying to own the responsibility for those mistakes, but it appears that's not how it has been received, so maybe I'm reading more into it than is on the page. Plenty of people have made the point already that being honest from the start would have been the best choice, and the unfolding of this debacle certainly underscores how true that is. Having been in the chair that Mariette now occupies, though, I can attest that being so candid in practice can be extremely hard to do.

Personally, I wish there were a little more sympathy and support being shown to Mariette during this, if not to SciAm. The sci-comm community can be wonderfully forgiving and encouraging of its own even when they have transgressed badly, and Mariette has a long record of generosity to others. But if people disagree or can't be otherwise now, Mariette will survive. She's one of the best science journalists, one of the best executives, and one of the best people I've had the honor to work with.

I will disagree with you on one point, Paul, where you suppose that SciAm didn't seek legal advice before taking down Dr. Lee's post. From my experiences there, I am completely certain that lawyers were consulted and that the insistence that the post come down immediately came from them. I'm equally sure they would have insisted that any initial statement about why it came down should not mention legal concerns: in any lawsuit that might follow, that statement could be used as an admission of negligence in allowing a damaging post on the site in the first place. Or so they would argue, anyway.

The reason I say this with the certainty that I do is that I have had those same lawyers make the same insistent recommendations to me in analogous situations.

Some people have dismissed the idea that anything in Dr. Lee's post could have been legally risky because she was showing screen caps of the emails, so their factuality was not in doubt. That's true, but it's not necessarily the full legal story, and I don't know whether any of Mariette's statements about the lawyers' concerns reflected all of them. For example—and I'm really surprised that so many journalists seem to be unaware of this—you cannot necessarily publish your correspondence with someone, particularly with the intention of holding that person up for criticism or ridicule, if he or she had a reasonable expectation that the communication was private. In such cases, the truth is specifically not a defense against charges of defamation.

I'm not saying these objections are the last legal word on the subject. (And to be even more clear, I'm not accusing Dr. Lee of having done anything wrong.) But they show that legal opinions on these matters can get complicated and that lawyers could easily make a case for taking down the post.

Whatever the legal advice might have been, it doesn't explain or excuse all the mistakes SciAm made in removing the post, being evasive about the reasons, and then being less than fully forthcoming afterward. I'm hopeful that SciAm will have learned from this dreadful experience—indeed, that the whole ugly business will have opened many people's eyes to truths about racism and sexism, and to the importance of owning up to mistakes promptly. Most especially, I wish the best for Dr. Lee and her desire to help make more of us aware of the curses of prejudice and the blessings of diversity.

Login or register to post comments