On science blogs this week: Fizz

Science bloggers take the Pepsi challenge — and win. Some journos leave ScienceBlogs over corporate blog, some scientists stay, PepsiCo becomes an ex-blogger, and ScienceBlogs management starts a blog of its own.


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SCIENCE WRITERS TAKE THE PEPSI CHALLENGE. AND WIN. The very biggest news on science blogs this week was on ScienceBlogs this week.

Visiting Mars, were you? Here's a recap:

ScienceBlogs is a big group blogging site that is home to some of the best-known science bloggers, mostly a mix of scientists who can write and journalists who know science. It is run by Seed Media, which publishes (or published) the apparently moribund and possibly deceased science magazine Seed. There's a joke in there about dead seeds, but I haven't the heart to devise a joke about the demise of a science pub.

This week the ScienceBlogs newsfeed announced that the site would now be home to Food Frontiers, "a new project presented by PepsiCo":

As part of this partnership, we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

I assume there was a certain amount of ROFL at this barefaced declaration, but when they recovered, some bloggers staged an uproar. Among the first to complain was the medico Orac, who writes at Respectful Insolence. Orac pointed out that ScienceBlogs had hosted commercially sponsored blogs in the past, but they were not written (or not entirely anyway) by the sponsors. The PepsiCo blog would be produced by PepsiCo (which indeed was already hosting a "blog" called Food Frontiers on its own site.)

Another early complainer was Paul Raeburn at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, who is deeply worried about letting advertising bleed into editorial content, especially journalism. See here and here and here.

In response to the complaints — not to mention the noisy departure of some of its star bloggers — ScienceBlogs management first announced that corporate content would henceforth be labeled "Advertorial." That unsuccessful ploy was replaced quickly by more dramatic action. PepsiCo was ousted from ScienceBlogs.

SELECTED RANTS, PRO AND CON. Here is a selection of rants from ScienceBlogs (and former ScienceBlogs) bloggers. They usually include links to posts by others, so you can follow this fracas for as long as your schedule permits.

Science writer Brian Switek explains at his blog, Laelaps, why he's leaving ScienceBlogs. The always-irrepressible ERV is, on this topic, even more irrepressible than usual. He takes the opposite view and reams out fellow ScienceBlog bloggers for intellectual inconsistency. Colorful but a tad repetitive.

Science journalist David Dobbs was also an early objector, and he has taken his well-known blog, Neuron Culture, to its own site. In this post he explains why he's not going back. ".....I think it significant that some of the earliest, most emphatic, and sharpest actions and objections came from people with some grounding in journalism," he says. That's in part because letting Pepsi buy its way into ScienceBlogs erases the traditional dividing line between advertising content and editorial content, a line that is dear to a journalist's heart.

Physicist Chad Orzel explains why he's not leaving ScienceBlogs at his blog, Uncertain Principles. He doesn't consider himself a journalist, and he sees ScienceBlogs as simply a hosting platform, like FaceBook.

SCIENCEBLOGS VS. SEED MAGAZINE. Mike the Mad Biologist is staying too, for the moment, and speculates that this dustup happened because management is much more interested in Seed magazine than in the blogs.

Meaning, I guess, that they made the Pepsi decision without much thought. Which explains why, given the unruly fractious crew of writers at ScienceBlogs, management was so clueless about what would happen when the news got out.

I haven't counted, so this guess may be quite wrong, but I think David Dobbs is correct that it was journalists who mostly raised the alarm. It's also my impression that the folks who have picked up their marbles and left the scene are mostly journalists too. The journos are folks who know all about the church-state wall between editorial and advertising, know why it exists, know why that wall is crucial to establishing and nurturing trust in what they write. Bloggers who have decided to remain tend to be scientists who have made their reputations in other venues and see blogging as a hobby.

Could this have been avoided? Maybe not, but maybe it's also an opportunity to wrestle once more with the question of whether blogging, and in this case a blog aggregation like ScienceBlogs, is really such a new thing that it demands new rules. Or can it be fitted into familiar contexts and the existing rules tweaked to accommodate it?

To me ScienceBlogs is not new at all. New, yes, in the sense that it is formed from electrons rather than paper and ink and — this is a delightful novelty for writers, and it may have unpredictable consequences — commands near-unlimited space rather than cramming a piece into finite column inches. But its roots go far, far back, at least as far back as the 18th century coffee-house journals of Addison and Steele.

ScienceBlogs is a miscellany of news and opinion and politics and humor and gossip, just like The Tatler and The Spectator of 1711 and just like contemporary magazines and journals of opinion carved from dead trees and the Internet. Readers of today's pubs expect that editorial content can be distinguished from ads with ease. There was a lame, belated attempt at that at ScienceBlogs. But that interim solution — labeling the Pepsi blog "Advertorial" — won't do. "Advertorial" is trade jargon. Magazines don't use it to label their advertorials; their label is the perfectly up-front "Advertisement." All readers understand what that means.

Not that getting the label right would have fixed the problem. There was still the clumsy failure to communicate the new plans in advance to resident bloggers. Moreover, there are hints in a number of posts that this was only the latest in a series of other slights and failures to communicate. At least one star blogger who departed, Rebecca Skloot, said she'd been thinking about leaving anyway.

THE SEED OF UNDERSTANDING? Mad Mike's analysis sounds sound to me. ScienceBlogs is well-known and for the most part well-regarded. This is a case where the child is far more famous, in many circles, than the parent magazine. But if Seed managers are living in a different universe, the universe of traditional (paper-based) magazines, they may not get it.

Well, perhaps they are beginning to get it now. "I want this blog to be a place where we can have a thoughtful conversation about the future of ScienceBlogs," says Adam Bly, the CEO of Seed Media Group, in his very first blog post. It went up this evening (Thursday).

Or perhaps not. I wondered if he had studied at the Tiger Woods School of Image Management and was going to apologize. But no. We learn how much he loves science and the important places he's spoken and the important boards he's on. And this homily:

These days, I spend a lot of time talking with scientists, governments and NGOs about how to advance science towards the betterment of society.....

He's calling his new blog Science is Culture.

Which just happens to be the title of his forthcoming book.

I have rarely encountered a finer example of taking a lemon and making lemonade.

INSTEAD OF LEMONADE, LET'S HAVE A DIET PEPSI. OR MAYBE NOT. Geez, I had a long list of other topics to be covered this week. This one ran away with me. At least let me call your attention to a bit of real science emerging from this tempestuous teapot. At The Frontal Cortex, brainy Jonah Lehrer took the Pepsi challenge as an opportunity to explain why diet soda makes people fat.

Jul. 9, 2010