KSJ Tracker October 16, 2013

Scientific American blog editor admits to sexual harassment.

[Update 3:55pm: ScienceOnline releases statement from co-founder Anton Zuiker saying Bora Zivkovic has "voluntarily resigned" from the organization's board of directors and that "the board is reviewing Bora's future role in the organization." See details below.]

[Update 3:39pm: I just became aware of a post on Medium in which Hannah Waters, a Scientific American blogger, wrote that even if Monica Byrne hadn't named Zivkovic, Waters "would have recognized him from his behavior because I have gone through it too." She wrote that he "began flirting a little," would "occasionally tell me that he loved me," and joked "that I was his 'concubine.'" She titled her post "The Insidious Power of Not-Quite-Harassment."]

A little more than a year ago, on Oct. 9, 2012, Monica Byrne, a writer and playwright in Durham, N.C., put up a post on her blog describing in detail an "incident of sexual harassment" involving "a prominent science editor and blogger." Under the headline "This happened," she wrote that she had invited him to coffee after he seemed to express interest in her writing. She wrote that he "very deliberately led" the conversation into a discussion of strip clubs, his sex life, and his marriage. "None of these topics were invited by me," she wrote.

She explained why she decided not to name him at that time:

I decided to post without naming names for two reasons: (1) to report an incident of sexual harassment publicly, on principle, to demonstrate what it looks like, how it causes harm, and how even a woman as “aware” as I am didn’t recognize it and tried to excuse it at first; and (2) to ask whether anyone has experienced something similar with a man who fits the below description, and if so, to get in touch with me, in case you’d like me to report it to his superiors along with my own account.

On Monday, she decided to name him.

In an update to her year-old post, she said she made the decision after reading about Scientific American's treatment of one of its bloggers, Danielle N. Lee, who posted about being called a "whore" by an editor at another publication. Scientific American removed her post without telling her--for legal reasons, it said. The post was republished over the weekend after a barrage of criticism from science journalists and bloggers.

After reading about this, Byrne wrote that "there's no reason for me anymore not to name him publicly, which I'd long wanted to do anyway."

The prominent science editor and blogger was Bora Zivkovic.

Zivkovic is the blog editor at Scientific American and one of the creators and the guiding light behind the annual science writers' meeting known as ScienceOnline. He has done an enormous amount to encourage novice science bloggers, both at Scientific American and through ScienceOnline. He catapulted Scientific American to the front ranks of science blogging sites. ScienceOnline, which he launched only a few years ago for writers in North Carolina, is now one of the most important national meetings for science writers and bloggers, rivaling the long-running annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers. I'd argue that Zivkovic is the single most important and influential individual in the world of science blogging, and one of the most important figures in science writing generally.

Yesterday, Zivkovic published an apology on his blog. "I am very ashamed of this incident which happened more than a year ago," he began. And he continued:

Staff at Scientific American spoke to me and Ms. Byrne about our interaction at that time. I asked that my sincere apologies be conveyed to Ms. Byrne for the distress she suffered as a result of my inappropriate remarks and emails to her, and I also expressed my deep regret to the company about acting unprofessionally... It is not behavior that I have engaged in before or since.

Byrne wrote in her post that she reported the incident to Zivkovic's superiors at the time and they "were wonderfully responsive and supportive."

The response among science bloggers has been mixed, as friends and associates of Zivkovic struggled to come to terms with this revelation. "Bora has been a friend to me and a supporter of mine," wrote Seth Mnookin on his blog The Panic Virus, so he "didn’t say anything about it — I didn’t tweet about it, didn’t bring attention to it on Facebook or Google+ or LinkedIn." He added, however, that he found the incident "horrendous."

In a long post on Facebook, Kate Clancy describes Zivkovic as "a friend, even a father figure, to me," who "is the reason I have a job at Scientific American." She wonders "whether it's possible to completely trust, honor, respect and support targets of sexual harassment, and also care for the perpetrator and want to figure out how to help him never do this again." She has an "inclination towards forgiveness," but wonders if it's wrong. (In a later update, she partly retracted her post, writing that henceforth she "will be aimed towards being better allies[sic]" to women targeted for abuse.)

In a long comment string, many respondents said they were similarly confused by the situation. What I found striking in many of the comments was the absence of angry demands that Zivkovic be fired or punished. The predominant reaction was confusion, not anger.

But there were exceptions. "What is crushingly disappointing is how unfazed the science community seem to be by Byrne's revelation," Priya Shetty wrote at The Huffington Post. "What explains either the deafening silence or the bizarre closing of ranks?" She notes that an obscure for a little-known blog site was fired for rather devastating name-calling (in the Lee affair), and yet a prominent and influential editor "earns virtual hugs from his peers"--many of the same people who condemned the behavior of the obscure editor.

Even more disturbing than the question of Zivkovic's employment is whether he will continue to play the huge role he has played in the annual ScienceOnline meeting. It's also hard to know whether people will continue to attend. Will the same people who were willing to boycott Scientific American over the Lee incident decide to boycott ScienceOnline?  

Emily Willingham tweeted that it will be important "for @boraz not to hv role in #sciox" because the selection of moderators would be suspect: "Who is a 'friend of Bora' and who isn't?'"

Early this afternoon, Scientific American's press spokesperson sent me the following statement from Scientific American's editor, Mariette DiChristina:

We take allegations such as Ms. Byrne’s very seriously. A year ago we investigated the incident. Bora Zivkovic issued a statement and an apology: http://blog.coturnix.org/2013/10/15/this-happenned/. We also offered our apologies at the time and Ms. Byrne acknowledged in her blog that she was satisfied with our response.  We will investigate any such incidents that are reported to us and take whatever additional action we deem necessary.

So it seems Zivkovic will keep his job at Scientific American--for now.

But his future at ScienceOnline is uncertain. On Wednesday afternoon, Anton Zuiker, the co-creator with Zivkovic of ScienceOnline and chairman of the organization's board, released a statement in which he said Zivkovic has "voluntarily resigned" from the board and that the board "is reviewing Bora's future role in the organization." Zivkovic has been involved in the planning for the group's next meeting, ScienceOnline Together 2014, but he "will not be involved with the final decisions for the programming," the statement said.

-Paul Raeburn


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