Before this weekend, the top discussion topics on the forum of Biology-Online -- which describes itself as the "world's largest and most comprehensive biology discussion board," were on mutations and body temperature. But the topic attracting the most contributions now is a bit different, with readers weighing in on the question: "When is it O.K. to call a scientist a whore?"
The question reflects the way an editor of Biology-Online responded to a scientist who declined to write for the site without pay. But the discussion has broadened to bias and disrespect faced by female and minority scientists. And when Scientific American took down a blog post about the incident, the anger grew more intense, as a respected publication was accused of refusing to permit discussion about the treatment of a minority woman -- even when that woman was one of the magazine's bloggers. When the magazine took down her post, other bloggers leaped in and published what she had written, and Twitter is now full of the hashtag #IstandwithDNLee -- referring to the woman whose treatment set off the controversy.
Danielle N. Lee is a postdoctoral fellow in zoology at Oklahoma State University, and will be moving to Cornell University, with her lab, next semester. She also writes "The Urban Scientist," a blog at Scientific American that she describes this way: "A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology and diversity in the sciences." Her blog there is popular, and Biology-Online sought her out.
Lee shared her e-mail exchanges online and several appear online through Scientific American (even after her blog post was removed). Someone identified as "Ofek," writing from Biology-Online, introduced himself as the blog editor and asked if Lee would be willing to contribute posts there. Lee wrote back, asking for details, including "payment rates." Ofek then wrote back and said that Biology-Online does not pay bloggers. Lee responded: "Thank you very much for your reply. But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day."
Ofek's reply: "Because we don't pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?"
The staff list of Biology-Online does not include Ofek. But in the discussion of the incident on the website, a site administrator promises to investigate what happened. She also says that Ofek is a new employee on the site, and that the site does not encourage "derogatory and discriminatory" remarks. Ofek did not respond to e-mail from Inside Higher Ed, nor did the site Biology-Online. Early Monday morning, a site administrator posted a comment saying that one of the owners of Biology-Online had sent an apology to Lee and that a screenshot of the apology would be posted later.
Lee responded to the experience -- before any comment was made by Biology-Online -- by posting about what had happened on her blog on Scientific American. Word started to spread, but the magazine took down the post.
On Twitter, Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief of Scientific American, wrote: "Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed."
A review of recent blog posts on the Scientific American website, however, suggests that bloggers other than Lee have been given some leeway in defining appropriate topics. There were posts in recent weeks on Lady Gaga, International Octopus Day and a comparison of science-related policy in Texas and North Carolina -- in other words plenty of content beyond just explanation of new science.
A Scientific American blogger, Hannah Waters, noted that the blog post the magazine removed was critical of Biology-Online, which happens to be a "partner" of Scientific American. Waters wrote on Twitter: "Hoped @SciAm was different - but it chose business (network partner) over its own bloggers. For shame." DiChristina responded on Twitter: " 'Partner' connection not a factor."
On Sunday afternoon, DiChristina posted a statement online in which she gave another reason for removing Lee's blog: "Dr. Lee’s post pertained to personal correspondence between her and an editor at Biology-Online about a possible assignment for that network. Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post." The statement stressed that Scientific American does consider issues related to the treatment of female and minority scientists to be important topics for bloggers to discuss. And she said that in her desire to say something quickly about the controversy, she turned to Twitter and that this approach did not convey her thinking.
DiChristina's statement also said that "We are investigating what links we currently have with Biology-Online. We intend to take further action, but due to the timing of this situation and our need to investigate the facts further, we cannot provide additional information at this point." A spokeswoman characterized the Scientific American relationship with Biology-Online as "limited" and said that it previously involved "recipricol advertising."
By Sunday, prior to the release of the statement, the web commentary seemed to be as much about Scientific American as about Biology-Online (and the commentary was scathing in talking about both entities). A new trending hashtag: #boycottSciAm.
The blogger Isis the Scientist, who frequently addresses issues of sexism in science, wrote that she is endorsing the boycott of Scientific American. In an open letter to the magazine, she noted that it partners with a website (Biology-Online) where an editor called a scientist a whore, and the magazine then removed that scientist's thoughts on what happened. "What you’ve taught me today is that you do not share my values. You may post glossy, sexy pictures of science, but you are not interested in discovery. You do not value truth, honesty and integrity – the core values that I hold most dear as a scientist. Most importantly, you did not empower my friend. You shut her down when she shared that she had not been respected. You put the dollar before the scientist," wrote Isis. "I can’t read you anymore, Scientific American because there is truly nothing scientific about you."
Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Emory University, wrote on her blog that the incident reflects serious problems in the way academe treats minority women and too frequently ignores their issues.
"Into all of these problems academics like Danielle Lee arrive. They exist at the intersection of two major problems in academia: sexism and racism. They believe in the public trust and they want the public to trust the work we do. So they travel to public conferences and translate science into English for general audiences. They see the bridges that brought them across divides that swallowed many of their peers on the way to an elite degree at an elite institution and they want to reinforce that bridge. So they use hip-hop music and culture like a Rosetta stone to bring poor kids, black kids, Hispanic kids into the scientific discourse," Cottom wrote. "When we consider the demographic projections in this country in relation to our clamor to lead the world in scientific discovery, scholars like Danielle are providing a national service. We can’t win the future of STEM without winning it through black and brown girls and boys.... Scholars like Danielle are usually doing this with fewer resources, institutional authority and support than white male scholars often enjoy.... Many are taking on debt and delaying income hoping the investment pays off with a job, of which there are fewer every year."
And that's why it's so offensive, Cottom wrote, that Lee was called a terrible name for simply asking for compensation for her time. "So when Danielle decided that she could not afford to write for Biology-Online for free at that point in time, she did so within a context of many of academia’s most pressing and vexing problems," Cottom wrote. "If she is a whore for doing that then so are many of us doing the work we believe in without the assumed authority of being white and male. I am that kind of whore and trust me, if you think it's hard out there for a pimp wait until you hear from a woman working the tracks."
In an interview Sunday, Lee said that she felt that she had been treated unfairly by both Biology-Online and Scientific American. She said she couldn't believe that the magazine had taken down her blog post and assumed at first that it was a technical error. She said that "for a woman of color to say no" clearly isn't accepted by everyone in academe, and that this results in the kind of treatment she received. "Micro-aggressions are a sad constant reality when there are not many people who look like us or sound like us," she said.
Lee has posted her reflections on the controversy on YouTube. In the video that follows, she says that she was "really surprised" that Biology-Online expected her to work for free, and that the editor there responded "so rudely" when she turned the website down. She said that it was important for scholars who are asked to contribute to various organizations to "do so on your own terms," and to make sure that they receive compensation or visibility or whatever they value to help their careers advance.
Minority and female scholars have a particular challenge, she said. "For far too long the presumption has been that if you are a woman, a person of color, or from a low socioeconomic status, folks think they can get you, your talent, your expertise and your energy for free," she said. "That's not available."