Published online 21 July 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.368
Updated online: 23 July 2010

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Advertising link causes blogger strike

Scientists abandon high-profile blog platform after 'Pepsi incident'.

Screenshot of Pharyngula blog 21/7/10Paul Myers, currently on 'strike', believes that ScienceBlogs will continue despite the current protests.Seed Media Group, Scienceblogs

One of the Internet's leading science-blog websites seems to be in crisis this week, with popular writers leaving or going on strike in a snowballing protest.

ScienceBlogs, owned by Seed Media Group in New York, has provided an invitation-only platform for the musings of a number of scientists and science writers over the years. However, many of its writers have been publicly voicing their discontent since plans were announced earlier this month for the site to host a blog sponsored by Pepsi where the soft drink company's employees would write about nutrition.

Pepsi's 'Food Frontiers' blog was swiftly pulled from ScienceBlogs, but the incident prompted about 20 writers to up digital-sticks and decamp for blog-pastures new.

"I was not happy with the fact that it was blatantly a PR-run advertisement but made to look like all the rest of the blog content on the network," says Peter Lipson, who writes under the name PalMD and recently moved his blog off the Seed platform.

Lipson, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at Wayne State University in Michigan, says the incident also highlights how those who write scientific blogs need to be aware of journalistic-style ethics. "People who are blogging for a larger audience have to realise that whether they like it or not they have become a major medium. That has responsibilities," he says.

Failing the taste test

The author of perhaps the most high-profile site on ScienceBlogs, Pharyngula, has declared himself to be on strike and encouraged other writers to join him. Paul 'PZ' Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, has garnered a large following with his mixture of strident atheism and evolution.

Myers says that the Pepsi incident was a catalyst for the unrest, which is also rooted in long-standing problems in communication between bloggers and company management.

“People who are blogging for a larger audience have to realise that whether they like it or not they have become a major medium. That has responsibilities.”


"I feel a lot of the problem now is the split where ScienceBlogs is successful and lately the exploration of other media ventures [by Seed] has come at the expense of ScienceBlogs," he says. "There's a general neglect of the infrastructure."

Myers says that if Seed does not respond positively to fix some of the problems he sees, he could envisage taking his blog to another platform or perhaps setting up an independent science-blogging co-operative. But he adds that after talks with Bly there is now some agreement between management and bloggers and "the episode should blow over fairly quickly".

The controversy has grown worse for Seed since the Pepsi-blog incident, because a number of people have come out to air their past grievances with the company. Gaia Vince, formerly a Nature news editor, wrote on the Guardian website that the Seed Media Group had refused to print a story she wrote on the Bhopal chemical disaster for fear of alienating an important advertiser.

Adam Bly, chief executive of Seed, responded that the Guardian article was "ridiculous" and that his company had suffered from revenue loss due to its belief in editorial freedom.

Seeds of dissent

In a statement to Nature, Joy Moore, a vice-president of Seed Media Group, said, "We are sad to see bloggers move, but will keep reading them as fans regardless. We've always talked about ScienceBlogs as an experiment in science communication — new, risky, and difficult but exciting and with plenty of potential for positive impact on science literacy. We will make mistakes along the way and our supporters can expect us to learn from them, course correct, and move forward."

However, the company did not respond to questions about Seed's financial situation.

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Others have doubts about whether ScienceBlogs can continue as a going concern after losing a number of its key players.

Science writer Ed Yong, himself a former ScienceBlogs blogger who moved to Discover Blogs before the Pepsi incident, says that the website "was always a meritocracy" in that you had to be invited to join on the basis of your work — rather than buy a spot as the drinks company did.

Asked whether he thinks ScienceBlogs can continue, Yong says, "I think there was probably a narrow window after it first happened when some strong statements from Seed might have rescued the situation. I think they were too ineffective for too long."

Myers seems to disagree. "We lost some really good people and that makes me sad," he says. "This idea of a network to put together some good science and good stories and social commentary is a good one. I think they can recover." 

Full disclosure: Nature Publishing Group runs the Nature Network blog platform that some view as a competitor to ScienceBlogs.

Updated:

On 22 July Myers announced that after “productive discussion” with Seed he was calling "off the strike":http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/still_alive.php

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