Scientific American’s Troubling Response to Its Blogger Being Called an “Urban Whore”

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Oct. 14 2013 4:17 PM

Scientific American’s Troubling Response to Its Blogger Being Called an “Urban Whore”

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Dr. Danielle N. Lee is a black, female scientist who blogs at Scientific American’s website as The Urban Scientist, writing on issues of “urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences.” Last week, she received an email from an editor at another science website, Biology Online, asking her to contribute her talents there, as well. Lee asked how much Biology Online paid its contributors. Nothing, the editor replied. “Thank you very much for your reply,” she wrote back. “But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.” His response: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

It was a racist, sexist comment—and a telling example of how one very minor cog in the science industry chooses to leverage his tiny bit of power to impede progress. Lee responded to the editor appropriately—“Did YOU JUST CALL ME A WHORE?”—and wrote a thoughtful and funny post about the incident at The Urban Scientist, including screen captures of the full email exchange. Then, Scientific American quietly deleted Lee’s post without informing her. In doing so, it turned one editor’s horrible comment into a much bigger problem for the fields of journalism and science.

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The editor at Biology Online, who has since been fired, may have lorded over a small science writing fiefdom, but Scientific American is a powerful and respected publication. When outrage over the incident reverberated across the Internet—on the Twitter hashtag #standingwithdnlee and on other platforms around the WebScientific American launched into defense mode, lending its considerable resources to the wrong side of this debate. In response to the criticism, Scientific American editor in chief Mariette DiChristina explained in a tweet that she runs “a publication for discovering science” and that Lee’s “post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.”

The critics easily swatted that down—Lee’s blog is specifically dedicated to diversity issues; the business of how science is made, disseminated, and funded is crucial to its very existence. So Scientific American kept digging. In a blog post Sunday, DiChristina wrote that she is aware of the “real and important issues regarding the treatment of women in science and women of color in science” and is “dismayed at the far too frequent cases in which women face prejudice and suffer inappropriate treatment as they strive for equality and respect.” On the other hand, DiChristina has got a magazine to run! “Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post,” she wrote. “Although we regret that this was necessary, a publisher must be able to protect its interests … In removing the post, we were in no way commenting upon the substance of the post, but reflecting that the underlying facts were not confirmed.”

It is not plausible that Scientific American has found no means to verify the “underlying facts” of the exchange by now. (Update, Oct. 14, 5:22 p.m.: Now they have, and the post is back up with an editor's note.) There is one tremendous upside to experiencing sexism and racism on the Internet: It leaves a paper trail. Lee smartly posted the evidence of the email exchange in her initial post. It’s now been five days since Lee received the offending email, and yet her post is still hidden from the site. Every day Scientific American waits, it further aligns itself with racism and sexism, and against the people like Lee who are committed to outing and discussing those things. It also calls into question Scientific American’s journalistic integrity and its understanding of facts.

If Scientific American feels legally responsible to redact a post while it investigates its facts, it should replace it with an honest and transparent explanation of its editorial decision—not just make the post disappear—then publish the results of its inquiry as soon as possible. But really, if Scientific American questions the integrity of the bloggers writing for it, it should put its manpower into assessing and editing posts before they're published instead of arbitrarily placing checks on certain (in this case, abused) people when its lack of investment in editing and fact-checking becomes inconvenient for the magazine. In the absence of Scientific American's action on that front, mistreated writers and their supporters are free to take to their own platforms to pick apart the indefensible defenses. Ironically, for an example of how better to handle the situation, check out Biology Online's posted apology, which explains its decision to fire the editor in question and includes a screenshot of its emailed apology to Lee.

We've reached out to Scientific American for comment and to ask when Lee's post will be back up on the site. We will update this post if we hear back.

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