ScienceBlogs, PepsiGate, and Institutional Content

Tim Boyle / Getty Images

Late last month, the influential ScienceBlogs network quietly made an announcement: it would be "helping to spark the next generation of research communications" by introducing five new blogs. They would look just like all the other sites on ScienceBlogs–one of the first, biggest, and best new-media outlets for high-quality science writing–but contentwise, they'd have one key difference. Unlike the network's other respected blogs, they wouldn't be written by individuals choosing their topics based on personal whims and interests. Instead, they would come "from the world's top scientific institutions"–Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Weizmann Institute of Science, the SETI Institute, CERN, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute–with the goal of "providing these institutions with a new way of communicating their incredible research online."

That last statement might have left science journalists scratching their heads, given the torrent of press releases, e-mails, and publications these institutions already put out. Was there really a need for yet another way of "communicating their incredible research"? Also, given the unremarkable appearance of the new blogs, how were readers supposed to know that at least some of the authors were PR pros, not quirky scientists with passions for writing and total editorial independence?

But no one raised an objection. Indeed, given that the announcement garnered only a single anodyne comment, one might assume few people saw it. Certainly, none of ScienceBlogs's often fiercely opinionated writers–who were told about the announcement the day before it was made–linked to it. In other words: no big deal.

Then came PepsiGate.

On July 7, a site called "Food Frontiers" popped up on ScienceBlogs after lurking for a while in a less-trafficked corporate corner of the Internet. It was paid for by PepsiCo and was supposed to be written by the company's scientists–which is to say, it probably would have functioned as an ad–but it wasn't clearly differentiated as such from other ScienceBlogs properties. Within a day, the network's bloggers were in such full revolt that ScienceBlogs took the offending site down before it had a chance to display a single substantive post. Then came more fallout: an article accusing the network's owner, SEED Media Group, of selling off its print sibling's (the online-only SEED magazine) editorial integrity to potential advertisers; defensive, leaked e-mails from the group's founder; and an exodus of bloggers.

Even before PepsiGate, some of ScienceBlogs's best contributors had started decamping to other networks. The soda snafu chased away more amazing writers, including Bora Zivkovic (a chronobiology specialist and science communications guru whose farewell post is one of the best, most exhaustive meditations on new media you'll ever read), celebrated author Rebecca Skloot, and prominent science journalist David Dobbs. (Over at competing site Discover Blogs, Carl Zimmer is keeping a comprehensive list of the diaspora.) PZ Myers, the witty, bomb-throwing evolutionary biologist who drives more than 40 percent of the ScienceBlogs traffic, briefly went "on strike," refusing to post until management met his call for "holding certain people's feet to the fire on a regular basis." On Thursday, after talks with the editors at ScienceBlogs, Myers was mollified enough to resume posting. But as he notes, it will take time before any visable changes are made at the network—and "we could still explode and send little fragments of ScienceBlogs hurtling outward into the greater blogoverse."

Whatever happens with Myers and the rest of the "SciBlings," as they've become known, it's pretty clear that a line was crossed with the Pepsi blog and that the line should never be approached again. Yet, with the institutional blogs, one could argue that the SEED Media Group is, if not completely crossing the line, tiptoeing along it. InstitutionalBlogGate (a term no one is actually using, and rightly so) isn't egregious the way PepsiGate was, since none of the institutions paid for their slots. Also, to quote a commenter at Brookhaven's blog, "there's an appreciable difference between a national laboratory and a corporate PR venture." The labs aren't trying to sell readers an unhealthy product; they're trying to spread the word about potentially important research that might make people healthier.

Still, there are some issues of credibility at stake. Would a blog authored by Pepsi scientists have been OK if ScienceBlogs had given it to the company for free? If not, what exactly is different about a research institution's blog? Can readers put their full faith in these five blogs the same way they can with an ostensibly independent individual's site? Or is there a difference, the way there is between reading a press release describing a study and more skeptical media coverage of the same research?

A lot depends on who's doing the writing. Many science writers employed by PR departments are lyrical stylists and smart, conscientious people. But they don't necessarily fill the role of watchdog the way good journalists and independent bloggers do. That function was neatly described by Marc Ambinder last week in The Atlantic: "When a story is complex, journalists ought to examine whatever thesis they hold and attempt, by reporting, to falsify it." That's a little like a scientist's job description, if you think about it: come up with a hypothesis and then try as hard as you can to prove it wrong. But it's not a PR person's job description. "The people writing these blogs are not truly speaking independently as individuals," says Dobbs, one of the writers who left the network after PepsiGate. "They can't react critically to everything–at least I don't think they can while keeping their jobs. Ideally, I would like to see the [institutional] blogs removed. I think ScienceBlogs and the readers would be better off if they weren't there."

Not all bloggers feel this way, Myers included. "We've known about those [institutional blogs] for some time—they aren't a problem," he wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. "Those sites were set up under the same conditions as the blogs of corporate scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who works at Google, and university scientist PZ Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. ... [The Pepsi blog blurred] the boundary between advertising and content. I agree that the institutional blogs also blur that boundary, just not quite as much. I can't insist that their blogs be labeled as advertisements, unless I want my blog marked as an ad for the University of Minnesota, or Chu-Carroll's as an ad for Google. It's complicated and messy."
The writers of the Brookhaven blog, possibly anticipating a controversy, have asked to be judged on the merits of the work instead of speculation about their motives, saying they aspire to do more than "redistribute press releases." So far, they seem to be living up to that standard; there's a lot of neat stuff on the site. The SETI blog is even better; it has posted only three entries, but they're all great ruminations on big topics, written by scientists, the sort of things you might see elsewhere on the network. That's by design, says Karen Randall, director of special projects at the SETI Institute, adding that if a controversy there were to arise, she would want the institution's bloggers to write about it. "As a scientist, debate isn't seen as a negative. That's what you do. It's part of the scientific process," she says. "We want them to be provocative and start conversations and get into debates that go beyond the institution."

That seems to be what ScienceBlogs’s management has in mind as well. Adam Bly, founder and CEO of SEED Media Group, wrote to NEWSWEEK that "for the labs, we think it's a fresh way of broadening their engagement with the public and the broader scientific community—it's a novel way for them to become a part of the conversation online. ... Sure, a blog from a lab is different than the blog from an individual scientist, but so long as that's made clear to our readers, we think it's all in line with our mission of advancing science literacy and public engagement with science."

Things at the Weizmann Wave are perhaps a little more complicated. The blog consists thus far of an introductory post, two summations of research-related press releases (albeit offbeat, interesting ones), a news brief announcing that a professor was elected president of a professional society, another brief informing readers that "the Weizmann Institute is the second best place to work in international academia," a mini-essay by the institute's president, and one post about the fact that "in the three years since he joined the Weizmann Institute, there have been four press releases on Dr. Avishay Gal-Yam's work." Apparently, readers can expect even more posts that are basically press releases: "These are the 'meat and potatoes' of our existence," Judy Halper, the Weizmann's director of public relations and communications, wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK.

Yet judging by the rest of her e-mail, the Weizmann Institute is at least trying to approach some of the gray ethical issues of institutional blogging thoughtfully. Asked what would happen if a controversy erupted at the Weizmann, and whether and how the blog would cover it, Halper had this to say: "This is a tricky, not to mention theoretical, question. In fact, the small amount of controversy that has come up, until now, has been passing and local, and would not be the least bit interesting to blog readers. However, the head of the department is the institute's spokesman, and he, along with the institute's president and vice presidents would have final say on how any controversy is handled, both in the blog and in other media."

If there's a problem with these sites, that "final say" bit may be it. Without editorial independence on the part of the blogger, the information really isn't that different from a press release. We've been here before, with Futurity, a site that looked a lot like a news vehicle when it launched last year, even though it was and still is a distribution center for university press releases. Here's what Zimmer said about it at the time:

Futurity calls what it publishes "news," but it's still being written by employees of the organizations that are the subject of that news. I have great respect for some public information officers; the stuff they write is, in some cases, wonderfully clear and informative. There's good information to be had on Futurity. But I always treat press releases as a starting point. I do not, for example, assume that a piece of research is actually important just because a press release says it is. Imagine a press release with the headline, "Minor study published that is really not all it claims to be." Such things just don't exist.

If the author of a piece describing a study has any incentive to cheerlead for that study, readers deserve to know about it. These institutional blogs–which, remember, look exactly like the rest of ScienceBlogs–don't seem to be clear enough on that point. How could ScienceBlogs be clearer? Should it, for instance, put some form of prominent disclaimer on the institutional sites, and if so, what should that disclaimer be? The blogs aren't advertorials, per se. What are they? Dobbs notes that the blogs are "wearing the tuxedo" of editorial independence, but adds that he's not sure whether tacking on a cautionary "lapel pin" is the right strategy.

Whatever that strategy is, the task of finding and executing it belongs to the ScienceBlogs management. And they'd better find a solution pretty soon, because ScienceBlogs plans to introduce dozens of institutional sites "in the near future," as Bly wrote in his e-mail. "Our scope is the scope of science itself—so we want government, academia, NGOs, industry, etc." Bly adds that the network will introduce "new technology and design in the near future to give our readers full transparency about the different kinds of blogs we host." How, exactly, he plans to do that, and whether it will meet the high standards of the SciBlings that made the site a hit, remain to be seen.

Join the Discussion