ScienceBlogs + PepsiCo: Are we overreacting?

July 7th, 2010
By Dave Mosher

Update 1 (7/8/2010): I’ve had some time to “chew on the gray area,”and Martin Robbins’ most excellent post on “Pepsigate” certainly helped (via David Dobbs). In short, I agree with Robbins’ argument and potential solutions. However, I’m still left wondering the following: Why wasn’t such a colossal stink about corporate-sponsored blogs previously raised by the community? Again, I admittedly lack the inside perspective because I’m not a ScienceBlogs member. Some of these sponsored blogs appear to be editorially independent, but full transparency is publicly elusive.

Update 2 (7/8/2010): ScienceBlogs has shuttered Food Frontiers and officially opened this issue up for debate, which pads the fair ounce of credit I think they deserve. Is this, however, a case of “a day late, a dollar short”? Yes, and rightfully so for those who left — especially the journalist-bloggers (i.e. David Dobbs, Maryn McKenna, Rebecca Skloot, etc.). But I’m an optimist. Perhaps management at Seed can truly learn from this experience, address the major problems that permitted the business operation to tarnish the editorial operation, and salvage their hemorrhaging community.


If you’ve been living under a science blogging rock, head over to Carl Zimmer’s summary of the ScienceBlogs and PepsiCo kerfuffle.

Didn’t get all that? Here’s a capsule review of the past 24+ hours:

  1. The 8,000,000-pound corporate gorilla PepsiCo struck a deal with Seed Media Group to join ScienceBlogs
  2. “Food Frontiers,” as the new blog is called, started with an introductory post by Evan Lerner
  3. The science blogosphere threw a conniption, with the majority* saying: “WTF is going on here?”
  4. In protest, some ScienceBloggers decided to vacate the premises (some temporarily, some permanently)
  5. ScienceBlogs finally added disclaimers about the nature of the PepsiCo relationship, i.e. that it’s “advertorial”
  6. News outlets (e.g. The Guardian) ran pieces about the fiasco
  7. When it’s a little too late, Adam Bly — founder and CEO of Seed — sent this letter to the ScienceBloggers
  8. (welcome to the present)

Pepsi Cola sign by Whiskeygonebad/FlickrIn short, ScienceBlogs — for various reasons — pissed off a lot of people.

But are we all overreacting over a communications oversight here? Or is this a legitimate, fist-slamming-on-the-desk moment to stick up to The Man?

Or perhaps a bit of both?

I’m an outsider to the ScienceBlogging community, but it’s pretty clear ScienceBlogs screwed up by not fully disclosing, well… anything from the start.

To be fair, I think they deserve some credit on the grounds that they made an effort to rectify the situation — within 22 hours and 47 minutes, no less. Eventually they took down the offending blog. [Updated 7/8/2010]

That effort signals a fundamental change to the way their content is structured:

Before: Blogs.
After: Editorial blogs. | Advertorial blogs.

I type “signals” and not “is” because the transformation isn’t complete.

Left out are the other advertiser-supported blogs, which include Collective Imagination (sponsored by GE), Next Generation Energy (sponsored by Shell) and What’s New in Life Science Research (sponsored by Invitrogen). These don’t have the “advertorial” bar across their banners, or transparent language like the Food Frontiers blog carriers:

This blog is sponsored by PepsiCo. All editorial content is written by PepsiCo’s scientists or scientists invited by PepsiCo and/or ScienceBlogs. All posts carry a byline above the fold indicating the scientist’s affiliation and conflicts of interest.

Furthermore, should all of the editorial blogs carry similarly weighty and standardized disclaimers? Or is that supposed to be universally understood by any John or Jane Doe who happens upon the site?

Paul Raeburn at Knight Science Journalism Tracker has an apt viewpoint in that regard, which I’d summarize as “look to the oldschool magazine guidelines.”

Alas.

My point here is that this firestorm took time to settle down a bit, and the wheels of change still appear — beg — to be in motion on ScienceBlog’s end. During this time, some bloggers chose (as more probably will) to leave the community and host their content elsewhere.

Leaving the fact that Food Frontiers has yet to churn out anything beyond an intro post:

Is this a stance that will make history in the annals of science blogging? Or is bandwagoning on a once-again popular trend occurring?

I leave it up to you to decide.

As for me? I see some gray area left to chew on. I see valid points on all fronts, and think the writers at ScienceBlogs should have raised a bigger stink sooner on corporate intrusion– but ultimately I side with the bloggers. What happened here was not only sloppy, but signals a larger problem with the way ScienceBlogs is run. [Updated 7/8/2010].

Photo courtesy of Anthony Catalano (Whiskeygonebad)/Flickr

* Based on my guesstimation of blog posts reactions, comments to those posts, and twitter feeds. Aka, super non-scientific.

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  • http://www.science20.com/science_20 Hank Campbell

    Dave,

    As you note, Pepsi was not the first and you left out Dow, Schering-Plough and others. It seems writers at Scienceblogs were the only ones who didn’t know about this. But being PR organs for research institutions is no better and they have done even more of that. It used to be if someone was writing from CERN on Scienceblogs, we were getting scoop. Now we are getting PIOs and advertising barters with big organizations in return for access to the Scienceblogs audience.

    No big traffic people are leaving Scienceblogs over this but I have always regard Laelaps as something of a moral compass there, so he is a loss. For the others, the money does matter, and where it comes from not so much, so they will stick around.

    Hank

    P.S. Are people overreacting? A little. But it generates pageviews and that is a big part of the culture.

  • http://davemosher.com Dave Mosher

    Hank:

    I didn’t know there were even more corporate-sponsored “advertorial” spaces on ScienceBlogs. That makes me wonder harder (if that’s possible) what made *this* particular corporate blog launch stand out? It seems ScienceBlogs is defaulting to the “hey, this was business as usual” argument.

    Is it an implied, hits-close-to-home subject matter (i.e. soft drinks/snack foods + obesity)? A critical mass of outrage reached when a global producer/aggressive marketer of so-called junk food sponsors an editorial food industry blog? Is it that no one really noticed the other corporate blogs before? Or that enough/the right bunch of ScienceBloggers (and their readers) noticed at pretty much the same time, and decided to say something about it?

    Or did I simply miss the fever-pitch discussion about all of this in the past? (From a gander, the archived blog comments on these older blogs don’t seem to get anywhere close.)

    Before I get any further, full disclosure: I’m dating BNL blogger Kendra Snyder, and I did a bit of PIO work during an internship at Ohio State University several years ago.

    That said, there are fundamental differences that should be highlighted, if I understand your argument correctly about research institutions being the same as corporations when it comes to writing for ScienceBlogs.

    One, PepsiCo is a for-profit corporation that has to answer to shareholders who want money (and lots of it). Two, they allegedly paid for blogging spot. Conversely, research institutions are not-for-profit enterprises that seek to support basic science research (not profit margins) and, as far as I’m aware, were invited to the ScienceBlogs party without any catches — including payment, and that’s from either party.

    You absolutely have the right to want the “inside scoop” from non-PIOs working at research institutions. As a freelance journalist, I want the same thing. But I don’t think it’s fair to compare research institutions to corporations here. Yes, there are some loose similarities between the types, and there inevitably some crooked PIOs — just as there are crooked bloggers, crooked PR flacks, and crooked journalists, for that matter. At the end of the day, however, research institutions and corporations are distinct entities.

    And thanks for the insight on the big traffic bloggers, your view on Laelaps and the money foodchain… all very good points.

  • http://finchwench.wordpress.com/ sara

    Yes, we are overreacting. I am sorry, but it might not be a bad thing to read something from scientists who actually work (i.e. NOT in an indentured servitude arrangement in academia) as scientists. And it is not as if all of the SciBloggers are pillars of objectivity, especially when it comes to their political assessments. In that sense, I do not see how going a bit corporate is any worse.

  • http://davemosher.com Dave Mosher

    Sara, good point and agreed that “we” are overreacting to that end. I’m curious to know what industry scientists would write in a format like the one ScienceBlogs provides, *as long as everything is very, very transparent*. And it seems to be getting there. Maybe. Not saying I’d support what they write — we don’t know if it’s being ghost written/heavily edited by PR people — but I’d like to think I can usually sniff that kind of thing out.

    On the affront to boundaries between editorial/advertising, I lean in the other direction.

    The more I think about this, the more I’m a “yes/no” answer to my own question. If that makes any sense. But again, this is from someone who isn’t a badged member of the ScienceBlogs community. if I was blogging there, I think I’d lean “no/no.” Maybe :)

  • http://www.science20.com/science_20 Hank Campbell

    David, you underscore the point I was making in Symbol Stacks And Science Communication – http://www.science20.com/science_20/symbol_stacks_and_science_communication – which I was thinking of while I wrote my comment. Why is there any perceived difference between a nonprofit institution and a profit one regard the ethics and quality of the researchers?

    There certainly isn’t to me. So they are overreacting because they don’t like seeing themselves as motivated by money, yet the bulk of the successful ones there have written contracts that pay them more on tiers for pageviews and always talk about how many pageviews they get because that is their currency – a symbol stack.

    The point I made at Science 2.0 was unlike Adam, I would not have taken any money. But unlike Scienceblogs, we would let Pepsi write for free and then only blast them if they attempted to use it for PR. But we won’t let any other institution do PR either, profit or not.

    Adam is in a tough spot. He is $20 million in the hole and would love to get some of that back – so he did this to boost his site; if he gets a lot of institutions they are The Place to be, rather than Discover or Science 2.0 or Nature Networks, and people in the audience take them more seriously than they have in the past because of the all the anti-Republicans and anti-religion stuff. But now anyone who might want to buy it has to realize that a segment of the writers are pretty militant about the site not making money yet don’t want to write for free. How can he sell something when the writers will walk if it looks too corporate?