There Goes the Neighborhood
July 7, 2010 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Science Blogs is a confederation of, as it says on the tin, blogs about science. They host such sites as Pharyngula, Good Math, Bad Math, and The Primate Diaries, among many others. Now they host Food Frontiers, a blog about nutrition -- written by PepsiCo. Many folks there are not happy. Overreaction to a single site with, at the moment, only one actual post? Or legitimate concern over scientific ethics? Why not have a refreshing ice-cold beverage while you ponder it?
posted by Legomancer (43 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps posts shouldn't be framed as an either/or call to argue.
posted by new brand day at 8:32 AM on July 7, 2010

Alternate post title: "PepSci"
posted by Legomancer at 8:33 AM on July 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Overreaction to a single site with, at the moment, only one actual post? Or legitimate concern over scientific ethics?

Neither. This is just the trend this country has been taking lately. Corporations steadily gaining more and more insidious influence in our daily lives. Nothing to see here, move along.
posted by MattMangels at 8:37 AM on July 7, 2010

And, I should add, we had better get used to it (especially after the Citizens United case).

In all seriousness, I personally see this as a big blow to ScienceBlogs' credibility.
posted by MattMangels at 8:38 AM on July 7, 2010

Haven't you heard of the Streisand effect?

Now thanks to your post everyone will know what Pepsi is!
posted by srboisvert at 8:45 AM on July 7, 2010

I saw a headline about this and thought ScienceBlogs had added scientists who worked for corporations, which is fine by me. But seeing that this really is Pepsi Blue - yuck.
posted by lukemeister at 8:47 AM on July 7, 2010

Credibility, integrity, reputation, these are all assets now. And all assets can be liquidated in favor of an increase in next quarter's bottom line. That's the only thing that matters.
posted by adipocere at 8:50 AM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

PZ Myers: "Oh, and I don't care what the Supreme Court said. Corporations aren't people. I read blogs written by sentient beings, not committees of shills."

*snort* I have some news for him.....
posted by zarq at 8:50 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

ScienceBlogs is a big deal, at least to people who care about science, policy, and culture. This is very bad news -- for the bloggers who are hosted there, for the people at Seed who have either lost their minds or other, less evil advertisers, and, most of all, the people who read ScienceBlogs because it was (used to be) a great way for non-scientists to keep up with, well, Science (TM). I'm very disappointed.
posted by a small part of the world at 8:52 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another unhappy scienceblogger.

And is it just me or has seed media group always seemed a little too close to corporate sponsors/interests for comfort?
posted by symbollocks at 8:53 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

A blog about food science and food engineering - a multi-billion dollar business with extensive effects on all parts of public diet and public health - would be a great addition to the Science Blogs lineup.

A blog collectively attributed to PepsiCo, though, means that they're going to have to work really hard at proving they're not being by their corporate agenda.
posted by ardgedee at 8:55 AM on July 7, 2010

They can swing their balls like any other blogger. And then have them cut off, and stuffed in their mouth, like any other blogger. Figuratively speaking.

Just watch and read, and if they spout nonsense, then call them on it.
posted by Xoebe at 9:03 AM on July 7, 2010

Just want to mention that the linked Thoughtful Animal's blog post was excellent -- no surprise. His posts are usually top-notch.

He calls for the scientific blogging community and his colleagues at ScienceBlogs to engage the PepsiCo folks.
I would also strongly encourage all my sciblings as well as other bloggers around the sciblogosphere to engage with the writers of the Pepsi blog. When they mess up, call them onto the carpet. When they don't back up their content with good peer-reviewed research, say so. If you know about scientific evidence that is contrary to what they claim, blog about it, or comment on their blog, or both.
Also, he mentions that there is a precedent. GE once sponsored and provided content for the Collective Imagination blog, and Shell sponsored a blog called "Next Generation Energy" although "none of the writers appear to have worked for Shell."
In both cases, SEED provided editorial oversight, which they do not do on the rest of our blogs, or on the new institutional blogs (like SETI, Weizmann, Brookhaven, etc).

The Pepsi blog, like the GE blog, appears to be set to include content provided by four individuals who work for Pepsi, and nothing from unaffiliated bloggers (as both GE and Shell had). Like the individuals from the GE blog who worked for GE, the individuals writing for Pepsi all appear to work in research or lead research teams (and not in PR or sales). One leads the Nutrition group, one is the Chief Scientific Officer, one directs the Heart Health and Global Health Policy group, and one leads the Global Human Sustainability Task Force.

posted by zarq at 9:05 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Science Blogs gives PepsiCo a branded platform, Talking Points Memo dips into Denton's yellow-journalist influenced empire by reposting Gizmodo articles (while essentially ignoring their unethical behavior)—it's not a good time for Blogs That I Trust.
posted by defenestration at 9:07 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, speaking as someone who helps craft and filter messages for businesses, it doesn't make a bit of difference whether the person writing the post is a member of the PR and Marketing team. When it comes to large corporations, if they're speaking to the public as a company representative, then what they say is most likely being filtered through those departments -- who probably have some control over content.
posted by zarq at 9:13 AM on July 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Evan Lerner, the head of ScienceBlogs, has just responded.
posted by cerebus19 at 9:30 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

We have seen Big Pharma at work with doctors; we have seen many universities accepting money from corporations for "research," and we have seen examples of staying pure, as in Consumer Reports--no ads and no subsidies...It becomes simply a matter of trust. Example: had a problem not too long ago and the doctor handed me a few packets of something I was to, given by a pharm representative. That same day, while on the net, I came across an article that dealt with big name drugs that doctors would not take themselves. Sure enough, what he had given me was on that list.
If science is to be pure, then they must put up every firewall possible to fend off outside potential influences.
posted by Postroad at 9:36 AM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

At least two of their bloggers are suspending their activities on the site in protest: Casaubon's Book and ClassM

Sunclipse (Blake Stacey) has also suspended activities, but that seems to be less about the latest protest and more about ongoing problems with negative comments on the site.
posted by zarq at 9:57 AM on July 7, 2010

Chief Scientific Officer? Of PepsiCo? That's like, what, the Head Chef for McDonalds?
posted by kjs3 at 10:01 AM on July 7, 2010

I'm not really seeing the big harm in having a clearly-marked blog-ghetto for Pepsi. I am, however, wondering what the point of it is for them. It's as if they set up a booth at some street fair with curtains around it that someone might wander into, probably by mistake. Do people really think that they were sticking it to The Man before this--especially, as Lerner notes, since they lost their corporate-sponsorship cherry a while ago?
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:19 AM on July 7, 2010

I don't think this is too much of a deal, as long as the fact that the blog material is written by PepsiCo is prominent, as it is. If they distinguish between 'buy-in' commercial bloggers and the normal scientist bloggers, I don't think it affects the scientist bloggers too negatively. I wouldn't expect readers of ScienceBlogs to pay too much attention to blogs like this anyway.
posted by demiurge at 10:28 AM on July 7, 2010

I used to read a few scienceblogs but the hideous ads everywhere eventually got to me. At one point there were banners all around a small block of content in the middle, and they had a video ad (that auto-played when it was first put there) down under the part were you'd type in a comment... it was nuts.

I have to agree with Halloween Jack, I have no idea why Pepsi wants to do this, but it's silly to listen to people act like corporate involvement in scienceblogs means that the sky is falling over there.
posted by ServSci at 10:47 AM on July 7, 2010

Real people work at these companies, and they do real science and real engineering. I will judge them by their content, and the quality of the science it contains. If, indeed, there is good science, then Science Blogs is a good place for it. If it is bad science, then not. Let us apply the scientific method. Our hypothesis is that it will be corporate schilling (i.e. bad science). Before we can proceed further, we need more data. So everyone calm down and let the experiment run.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:50 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think adipocere's comment about credibility as an asset is close to the heart of the issue. As times get tougher for the journalism world, it gets harder and harder for media outlets to resist corporate pressures that have been there for decades. Witness, for example, the (minor) recent to-do over the LATimes' wraparound ad.

Publishers are flirting, more and more, with actions that cannibalize their credibility rather than merely capitalizing on it.

I think that Evan Lerner's response helps a bit, though I don't buy his assertion that it will be a window into industry science -- the original blog shows that it's almost certainly going to be pure flackery.

One thing that I find really interesting -- these bloggers may be holding their publishers to higher standards of conduct than print writers can, by virtue of being more mobile. They can pack up and leave really easily, if only because they're not tied down by the prospect of a significant loss of income.
posted by cgs06 at 10:57 AM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

And all assets can be liquidated in favor of an increase in next quarter's bottom line.

True. But that "increase in the next quarter's bottom line" is often the difference between staying in business and going out of business entirely.

Seed Media Group is a tiny, independent company. Although they've always struggled to stay in the black, they pay relatively decent salaries and had a good per-word rate for print. They also had to fold their flagship magazine twice. Their corporate partnerships are less about some flippant desire to increase one quarter's bottom line, and more about having the revenue to stay in business, and (after a bad experience when the magazine folded the first time) pay people on time.

There is a good chance that the deal with Pepsi will bring in more revenue, in a lump sum, than all of the other Science Blogs could, combined, over the course of several months, if not a year or more. Which is to say: Blog advertorial sucks, but it's not about one quarter's "bottom line"—it's about the cost of keeping the other Science Blogs in business.

(Full disclosure: I worked at Seed, a ways back. I can only recall one instance where I felt there was a conflict of interest because of a potential corporate deal, and it was a fairly trivial issue. SMG is facing an uphill battle because of its size and independence, but those qualities also mean that the voices of conscientious, individual employees actually do make a difference in policing conflicts of interest, and directing content.)
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:25 AM on July 7, 2010

zarq: "At least two of their bloggers are suspending their activities on the site in protest: Casaubon's Book and ClassM "

Add Laelaps to that list.
posted by brundlefly at 1:14 PM on July 7, 2010

Also leaving: David Dobbs' neuronculture, SciCurious and CultureDish.
posted by zarq at 1:24 PM on July 7, 2010

myrmecos and goodmath are on temporary hiatus.
posted by zarq at 1:49 PM on July 7, 2010

The Guardian: ScienceBlogs, we have a problem
posted by zarq at 1:51 PM on July 7, 2010

Also: primatediaries.

How many bloggers does the site have, anyway? I think that's now ten bloggers who are taking a permanent or temporary break, which has to be at least 10%.
posted by zarq at 2:03 PM on July 7, 2010

Hmm, it pushed the Pontiff over the edge too. Sigh.
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:17 PM on July 7, 2010

A matter close to my heart, as it very closely reflects the sort of editorial and commercial decisions I have to make in my job.

First, there is nothing wrong with having a paid-for, commercial presence in a publication. That's what adverts in magazines and newspapers are, and something has to pay for editorial.

Second, it is a very good thing that organisations like PepsiCo are prepared to interact with an informed, independent and opinionated readership. Assuming that they are - but that they chose ScienceBlogs is a good sign. They could take their advertising and marketing money and just buy more adverts, after all, or pay for more and fatter lobbyists, or try to get paid-for research into journals disguised as independent papers, or... well, there are no shortage of sins. A public channel back into the heart of the beast is a remarkable innovation. If PepsiCo failed to deliver, it would be a very public failure.

Third, SB handled this very badly.

One of the most poisonous and destructive forms of paid-for content is advertorial: adverts disguised as editorial. It is something that is constantly - and I mean constantly - pushed at publications, even those who resolutely refuse to take it. Ad sales people are constantly offered large deals to get the stuff in, PRs try every trick in the book, and the smarter advertisers are adept at trying to slip it in by the way they design their collateral or asking for this or that ambiguous aspect to a deal.

Advertorial destroys trust. It is deceiving the readership. It taints the entire publication. It is, in my view, one of the worst things a publication with any pretence to objectivity can do.

You wouldn't believe how much time and effort goes into stopping it, and how many shades of grey there are, and how differently those shades look from different parts of a publisher. I'm lucky in that I work for one that has support for editorial from the top down, and backs up editors that say no. But there is always, always pressure to give advertisers stuff. These are hard times, and it is hard to say no, we won't do that, it deceives the readers.

Yet there are ways to take the advertisers money, be faithful to the readership, and be transparent about what's going on, and SB didn't get that bit right.

While SB did make it clear what the blog was, they didn't make it nearly clear enough. By having it in exactly the same format as the independent editorial - albeit with branding and an unambiguous explanation of what it was - it gets far too close to advertorial for comfort.

In the blogosphere, which is on a hair trigger to detect hidden influences, it stinks. Hell, I've been accused many times in public of shilling for this or that advertiser (sometimes, of a company who didn't actually advertise with us!) because we published an opinion piece that some readers disagreed with.

If I were SB, I'd have taken some of PepsiCo's money to set up a new area, one that was visually designed very differently, for paid-for commercial blogs.

I would have said what I was doing beforehand, privately to the bloggers and publicly to the readership, saying with extreme clarity what was about to happen, what the rules were, and how everyone could tell instantly whether they were dealing with an independent blogger, or one who was paid to blog by a commercial entity. I would have said that this is a new form of content, said how it was materially different to the existing blogs, and what the reasons for it were.

(The rules, by the way, would make it exceptionally clear that anyone taking part in the discussion who had a commercial interest in the subject area of the blog, would have to declare it, whether they were employees or agents of the blogging company, or the competition. Astroturfing would be a capital offence.)

With that sort of thing in place, I would be happy to run something like the PepsiCo blog because, as I said, it's a good thing that companies like that are prepared to enter a conversation with an audience like this. It's a commercial model that is interesting, valid and a good example of the sort of way that objective journalism may yet survive. It brings openness to corporations, and that is something of extraordinary importance, for reasons I'm sure I don't need to enumerate.

SB messed this up. But they didn't sin.
posted by Devonian at 4:48 PM on July 7, 2010 [8 favorites]

Let us apply the scientific method. Our hypothesis is that it will be corporate schilling (i.e. bad science). Before we can proceed further, we need more data. So everyone calm down and let the experiment run.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:50 AM on July 7 [1 favorite +] [!]

Let's apply the precautionary principle as well. Where is that research going to come from? Certainly not from P****C*.
posted by eustatic at 11:14 PM on July 7, 2010

ScienceBlogs has contracted with Pepsi to write a nutrition column.

ScienceBlogs has contracted with Pepsi to write a nutrition column.

I can't believe that there's a controversy at all, because:

ScienceBlogs has contracted with PEPSI to write a NUTRITION column!!!!!!!
posted by dirigibleman at 12:04 AM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi everyone. I’m Daniel Pellegrom from PepsiCo, and I’m the editor of this blog. I’ll be moderating the comments that come through here on a daily basis...

It's my understanding that the previous corporate-sponsored blogs didn't have moderation by employees of the sponsors. Welcome to funtime.
posted by dirigibleman at 12:30 AM on July 8, 2010

This from my twitter stream: RT @niche: RT @RebeccaSkloot: This just in via email from Adam Bly: ScienceBlogs has canceled PepsiCo Blog, Food Frontiers. Issuing apology
posted by liza at 7:47 AM on July 8, 2010

404. (If you include a trailing slash, you get redirected here)
How do we empower top scientists working in industry to lead science-minded positive change within their organizations? How can a large and diverse online community made up of scientists and the science-minded public help?
Seems pretty easy, just give them a blog. And let them do it anonymously. The question you were asking was how can we get paid for doing this?

An actual blog from an actual insider would be pretty interesting.
posted by delmoi at 1:41 PM on July 8, 2010

And... they've taken the offending blog down completely.
posted by cerebus19 at 5:15 AM on July 9, 2010

I don't think this rambling attempt at justification from Adam Bly to Science Blog bloggers has been linked yet; it's still worth reading now that they've cancelled the blog, as a look at his thinking as he scrambled to salvage his absurdly damaging deal.
posted by mediareport at 5:24 AM on July 9, 2010

Jonah Lehrer's Frontal Cortex blog is now at Wired.
posted by homunculus at 11:44 AM on July 24, 2010

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