[Editor’s note: Nadia Drake is a freelance science journalist based in San Francisco.]
On Tuesday, the Columbia Journalism Review published a profile of Elise Andrew, creator of the massively popular Facebook page I F*cking Love Science. The page posts science curiosities multiple times a day and has attracted more than 18 million Facebook fans (as CJR explains, this is more than Popular Science, Discover, Scientific American, and The New York Times combined). In the last two years, IFLS has grown into an online news site, a YouTube channel, a series of live events, and an upcoming television show.
In other words, the IFLS Facebook page has birthed a mini media empire.
At least according to Alexis Sobel Fitts, editor of CJR’s science-focused The Observatory. Fitts, a longtime freelance writer, took over the job when previous editor Curtis Brainard left to become blog editor at Scientific American.
She wrote the profile without interviewing media-shy Andrew (her attempts to get Andrew to go on the record were rebuffed). Despite Andrew’s apparent aversion to interacting with journalists, Fitts went on to describe the IFLS founder as being the first self-made brand in journalism. The story then chronicled the rise of IFLS, the Internet’s reaction to finding out the page is run by a woman, Andrew’s reluctance to grant interviews, her celebrity status, her favorite Christmas gift, her vacations, and so on.
“Andrew,” Fitts writes, “Is poised to be a new type of media superstar.”
For starters, the profile appeared in a journalistic publication, written in an unjournalistic way, about a person whose work is not journalism. Go ahead and debate what that J-word actually means in the comments, but I’d argue that several of the fundamental tenets of journalism – such as accuracy and unbiased reporting – are missing from the CJR piece (which also happens to be this issue’s cover story).
Instead of taking a measured, balanced look at the person behind a media phenomenon, the profile came off as an overly sunny PR puff piece. After all, Andrew is not journalism’s first self-made brand. And, oh, by the way, the profile mentions almost as an aside, there is a history of copyright infringement and plagiarism accusations being directed at IFLS.
That’s a serious oversight for CJR. The reason these claims are being made is that many of the images showing up on the IFLS page were uncredited (and presumably uncompensated). And especially in the early days of the page, these items drove eyeballs and traffic to the site. In other words, these images were the posts that helped the page grow its audience – the foundation upon which that IFLS empire is built.
The copyright complaints are legitimate concerns, leveraged by professionals whose income and livelihood rely on their work. (And it’s worth noting that merely crediting an image is not usually enough under U.S. copyright law. Except for particular situations, obtaining permission to post a copyrighted image isn’t merely a courtesy – it’s legally required. Attribution is not equivalent to acquiring the rights to reuse something.) Some of the creators of these photos, animations, comics, and illustrations (and jewelry) are justifiably angry at having their work used without their permission – and undoubtedly about being used to grow the IFLS empire.
Ironically, the examples Fitts uses near the top of the profile to illustrate how IFLS grabbed her interest are all unattributed images. See that photo of sand under a microscope that initially attracted Fitts’ attention? Where did it come from? Hint: Here. How about that spaghetti monster nervous system? And the diagram of the Milky Way? Unless Andrew drew it herself, someone else owns the rights to it…and that someone else wants attribution with reuse.
Fitts does refer to the infringement accusations as a “more serious transgression.” She also briefly describes the complaints of photographer and blogger Alex Wild. He gets his own paragraph in a five-page story, and Fitts mentions that his claims motivated others to come forward as well. She notes that Andrew didn’t respond to them. But she concludes with the following:
“[Andrew’s] lack of response suggested less media savvy than I’d begun to give her credit for; it smacked of a hobbyist, someone who doesn’t hold herself accountable. Or perhaps it was a move well-played; the accusations died down and Andrew began prominently crediting all the posts used on her page and website.”
And then the story moves on.
Which would not be a problem except that this version of events is not entirely true. Sure, the issue of image attribution has improved as the page has aged, but it’s not resolved. As one attendee commented during a session at Science Online in March, “Elise at I F*cking Love Science will usually fix a problem if you ask, but why should people have to keep asking her?”
And “usually fix” sets the bar pretty low. Still, there’s definitely room for a cooperative relationship between a purveyor of science curiosities and the people whose work is used to draw attention to those curiosities. Illustrator Glendon Mellow suggested as much yesterday morning, on Twitter, and in a comment on the CJR piece. Fitts does address the benefits of such a relationship using the example of artist Katie McKissick. McKissick, she says, got in touch with Andrew and asked Andrew to share some of her comics. As a result, McKissick’s audience ballooned from 400 people to more than 170,000.
But a few hours after the story published, McKissick took to Twitter to explain how her experience with credited work on IFLS was unusual.
There is evidence that IFLS is moving in the right direction with image attribution; certainly the website, IFLScience.com, increasingly illustrates that. But the Fitts piece dismisses other problems as well, such as accuracy, which is surprising given CJR’s journalistic foundation.
At one point, Fitts raises the issue of Reddit threads and parody accounts that regularly dissect and criticize IFLS posts and stories. But she attributes these criticisms to Andrew’s “lack of professional associations.”
It’s not a lack of professional associations that’s leaving IFLS vulnerable to criticism.
A string of posts this summer suggested that IFLS endangers facts on a fairly regular basis; these included a photoshopped, uncredited image of a snake (“…this gorgeous creature is found in California” – except it doesn’t look a thing like the over-saturated, edited version the site posted), a re-posted cracked.com photo suggesting spiders had taken over trees in Japan (and showing what was actually a landscape in Iran), an astronomy news story that misstated the entire premise of the discovery in the first sentence and went on to bungle facts throughout. (I actually don’t go looking for these things – but as they cross my Facebook news feed, I do notice them.)
Fitts pretty much glosses over this: “To some extent, [Andrew] is guilty of what plagues science-writing generally: the need to simplify and ignore the endless caveats that would otherwise make the stuff impenetrable to all the [sic] but the most specialized reader,” she writes. Yet simplification doesn’t excuse error-prone explanations nor does it excuse the fact that when these mistakes are pointed out, they are rarely corrected.
Yesterday, as criticism began to mingle with support from her fans, Andrew suggested that those who might write snarky blogs about her aren’t interested in problem solving. Not true, said illustrator Glendon Mellow, who’s hoping a broader conversation will elicit quicker change.
Snark is not the point of this piece, either.
For CJR to celebrate the rise of IFLS and its creator without giving proper weight to legitimate, serious concerns is a major misstep. And that’s why people are upset.
CJR is a respected publication. IFLS is a science page, and it has 19 million viewers. Having a large, loyal audience does not make you immune to the rules – if anything, it makes you even more beholden to them. And I don’t think either IFLS or CJR should get a pass on this one.