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Saturday, October 12, 2013


John McKay

This won't fit on Twitter, dammit, but, to me, this is the historical analogy for the relationship between Bio-online and Sci-Am that leaps to mind. It's not perfect, but here goes.

On the night of March 23, 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood directed the supertanker Exxon Valdez out of Valdez harbor, pointed it at Prince Williams Sound, and retire to his cabin to drink himself to sleep. At four seconds after midnight, the tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef and began leaking crude.

That part of the story is famous. What's not as well known is that the company responsible for dealing with spills, VECO, had beached all of the cleanup barges at the same time and unloaded the containment booms while the barges underwent maintenance. On the 24th, the seas were glass calm. But without the booms, the only containment possible was the Coast Guard with big buckets. As a storm moved in, they thought about blowing up the ship before choppy waters made it impossible to contain the spread. Even that plan was too late.

As the storm moved in, press conferences began to happen hourly. Finally, Exxon stepped forward and said "we take full responsibility." VECO quietly ducked out of the room at that point.

If VECO had been there to do their clean-up job, the situation would never have become as dire as it did. Despite their great responsibility, VECO had cover for failing their responsibility by letting the more prominent Exxon take the blame.

It's not a perfect analogy. However, is behaving like VECO in ducking their responsibility and letting the more prominent Scientific American take all the flack while they slink away. is reponsible for the unprofessional and inexcusable behavior of their representative (what kind of organization lets their represenatives be anonymous?) They deserve the primary blame for this situation. Scientific American is only responsible for (horrendously) badly handling someone else's bad behavior.

So far, Scientific American seems ready to sacrifice their enormously high level of credibility to back up one bad decision by one editor. This is not even fatal for that editor. All she need is a sincere "oops, apology, please let me redeem myself by my future actions" and then some visible action to support women and minorities. And, behind the scenes, providing a very clear explanation to SciAm bloggers of what is permitted and what is not. And that only after a open (meaning bloggers can solicit comment on their blogs) and honest (meaning genuine negotiation between equals, not dictation from a position of power) discussion. Such dictation is appropriate when accepting new members; it is not when changing the rules for existing members.

I know it's too late for anything I say to affect what happens within the organization. Hints from Bora suggest the decisions have already been made. I just hope they were made on a basis something like this.

Chris Ho-Stuart

My thoughts...

It's the weekend. It would be nice for the internet to take a breath. Mistakes have been made, but it would be fair enough to allow for them being fixed on Monday.

Major major props to Dr Lee; who stands out as very classy in all of this. Check her video; it isn't a rant at Ofek or biology-online (which would have been my inclination). It was a dispassionate consideration of valuing yourself and your work and your time; addressed to young scientists.

As for the other parties: Ofek screwed up big time and I think his tenure as blog editor is done. Best thing for Ofek to do would be apologize, and offer a resignation now. I hope Ofek can learn something and recover in time; but for now: take responsibility and forget blog editing for the time being.

Biology-online was caught by the weekend. They are pretty clearly a small group run by enthusiasts but not a big player. Ofek was a new hire apparently and that blew up. Accept his resignation or fire him if he doesn't take my advice above in time. But that will have to wait till Monday. A subtext on this is that scientists and enthusiasts do need to value their own time and not succumb to unreasonable demands that they doing everything for everyone right now. Dr Lee is dead right on that one. Hence: the workers at biology-online deserve a bit of break to give them time to get back to work after the weekend, and deal with the matter promptly then. I'm pretty sure they'll deal with this.

I have some sympathy for Scientific American. I think they got this one wrong. Blogs at sciam often cover more than just "science discovery"; but it is fair enough to keep an eye on this. A blog post taking up a single specific conflict with two individuals is a red flag.

The thing is: Dr Lee handled this conflict incredibly well. She didn't just get into a personal conflict; she chose rather to give some pertinent and well expressed advice for young scientists about using their time and professional talents. So I think they would reconsider and restore the post; even highlight it. It's really relevant to the practice of science, written by a very good communicator.

A few thoughts there: following this with interest.

Random Bystander

Apparently biology-online has apologized and fired Ofek:


Just another example of racism and disrespect of African American females by Ofek.

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