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The Scienceblogs Scandal as a Study of Organizational Culture

2010 July 20

Recently, a corporate scandal erupted at ScienceBlogs, an invitation-only blogging network run by Seed Media Group that is designed to promote popular science.  The bloggers there are the typical liberal academic sorts, possessing strong convictions toward open communication, honestly, and avoidance of all association with corporations as if they could catch cancer simply by having their words recorded on the same domain name as a corporate sponsor.

Thus an uneasy truce was struck.  Fine scientific minds would post at ScienceBlogs with the understanding that their words were not to be censored in any way, such that the integrity of the writers could be maintained.  Seed got what it wanted through advertisers, while the writers got exposure.  This is a pretty unusual arrangement for a publishing organization; imagine the New York Times telling its reporters that they could put anything into print that their hearts desired.  The reason it seems peculiar is that this more closely represents the academic model of publishing – however controversial a finding might be, it should be published if the scientific methods backing it is sound.  It was only within this model that scientists agreed to work for Seed Media Group.

Then the scandal erupted.  A corporate sponsor, PepsiCo, decided that it wanted Seed to create a ScienceBlog dedicated to food science.  It was originally to be written by an independent blogger (presumably only associated with the Pepsi name), but for some unclear reason, this did not happen.  Instead, it was set up such that Pepsi employees would write the blog – a big no-no in the academic culture I described above (the words “corporate shill” were thrown around several times).

Previous to the scandal, I had assumed ScienceBlogs operated like ReseachBlogging.org, an organization with which this blog associates.  The purpose of ResearchBlogging.org is to establish a central hub by which people interested in peer-reviewed science can connect, and it works quite well.  But ResearchBlogging.org is just that – a hub and a loose affiliation; I don’t chat with other ResearchBlogging.org folks except when I want to comment on their writings on their own blogs.  At ScienceBlogs, there’s something more closely resembling a community of coworkers.

That community in combination with academic expectations of openness and the academic tendency to analyze deeply creates what I would term a “perfect storm” – members of the community are angry and more than willing to reveal probing thoughts on the scandal, offering independent observers an uncommon glimpse deep into culture of this organization.

Here are some examples:

  • Prominent ScienceBlogs member PZ Meyers gives this hot-headed assessment, with rich critical metaphor, demanding that organizational authorities comment on the problems ScienceBlogs is experiencing.  This is, in a sense, a demand for informational justice – the ScienceBlogs community has been wronged, and PZ demands that their corporate overlords provide a response.
  • Blogger Coturnix gives this detailed description of the problem and his own rationale for separating from ScienceBlogs.  In an organizational sense, we can explain this as a matter of person-organization fit.  Coturnix does not feel that the values of the organization (Seed) match his own any more, and as a result, is leaving the organization.  But the amount of detail given for this decision is an incredibly interesting look into what turns turnover intentions into actual behavior.
  • Former SEED employee John Pavlus minces no words, stating that “the sooner that…SEED Media Group permanently shuttered, the better off science journalism/communication would be.”  That’s a lot of hostility, but not directed at how the employee himself was treated.  Instead, his concern is for how the organization is affecting the world.  How many of you work for an organization whose actions you vehemently oppose, insofar as you would more critical of their effect on society than their effect on you?
  • Gaia discusses her choice to publish unflattering information about Seed in the Guardian, describing how she an article she wrote was pulled because it criticized an advertiser.  She withheld this information until now, which makes this an interesting case study of after-the-fact whistleblowing.  Essentially, a former employee kept her mouth shut about what she perceived as biased practices, only to make a big reveal some time later.  Many companies fear exactly this.
  • Emily Anthes reports a similar experience, though in a much shorter format.  Instead of censorship, this former employee was asked to write a positive piece about an advertiser.  Though we don’t have much information due to the short format, we can assume that this was again an issue of P-O fit.  This employee was asked to perform what was to her an unethical act, and as with Gaia, only decided to come forward with that information much later.

The debacle has certainly brought much about Seed into the light that I would never have learned otherwise, and almost all of it is provided by current and past employees.  What exactly did Seed do to rouse so much ire over such a long period of time, and how can others avoid these mistakes?  Certainly there are some lessons here to be learned for any organization.

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