Science Blogs in refreshing, sugary ethics kerfuffle

ScienceBlogs, the mothership of online nerdery, just made a big, bad-publicity splash, launching a nutrition-themed blog sponsored—and written—by PepsiCo.

Photo by Roadsidepictures.

Readers have been irked, and many ScienceBloggers, for whom this apparently came as a surprise, are expressing feelings ranging from barn-burning outrage to nuanced concern to biting dismissal—and also resigning in protest (or exhaustion). It isn’t the first time ScienceBlogs has run a corporate-sponsored column, but those previous ones had writers who were independent of the sponsor. The affiliations of the new blog, Food Frontiers, are indicated in the header bar and the masthead, but not especially loudly—and the blog’s content will apparently be aggregated to Google News alongside the work of non-corporate ScienceBloggers. As Knight Science Journalism points out, ScienceBlogs’ treatment of Food Frontiers pretty clearly violates old media journalistic ethics.

In an e-mail to ScienceBloggers leaked to The Guardian, SEED editor Adam Bly wrote

We think the conversation should include scientists from academia and government; we also think it should include scientists from industry. Because industry is increasingly the interface between science and society. It is our hope that the Xeroxes and Bell Labs of the future will have a real presence on SB – that they will learn from our readers and we will learn from them.

That’s a pretty poor equivalency Bly is making, frankly. As far as I can tell, the academic scientists who write for ScienceBlogs do so without an explicit mandate from their universities or even funding agencies. Pepsico food scientists writing on behalf of Pepsico are not doing the same kind of science communication.

With more visible caveats, and maybe some sort of special treatment in the ScienceBlogs RSS feeds, Food Frontiers doesn’t have to be the end of all credibility for ScienceBlogs. But, boy, it doesn’t look good right now—and, if I’d spent a substantial portion of my blogging career helping to build ScienceBlogs into the hub of respectable online science writing it’s become, I’d be pretty upset. It looks like ScienceBlogs is losing some really strong writers over this, and that seems like a poor trade-off.

The only possible upside? The possibility we’ll get to hear PZ Meyers and Rebecca Skloot interviewed by Bob Garfield.

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