I’m baffled. Why is it that beautiful, high quality blogs like Orac’s Respectful Insolence, wanted to be on a commercially-run site in the first place?
Scienceblogs is such a site and it recently caused a crisis when it accepted a paid PR piece by Pepsico (without warning its bloggers first). This was not to be with the obvious advertisements in the side bars, but published like any other blog, Scienceblogs is a commercial organisation, owned and operated by the Seed Media group. The response to the crisis by Adam Bly was leaked and can be read here. It is, in my view, not anything like good enough. One of the great beauties of the internet is that it is really quite hard to keep things secret.
ScienceBlogs was offensive enough even before Pepsigeddon. I go there to read Orac, not to be bombarded with adverts for phone companies and the very sort of quackery that Orac so eloquently exposes. Perhaps Americans are more inured to constant mendacious advertising through their TV and radio. Thank heavens for the BBC which makes (some) good programmes and never has advertisements.
Should people be paid to blog?
I have no objection to people being paid for work that they do. I have had occasional payments from newspapers (and the BMJ) for articles that they have commissioned. This makes a nice change. Scientists usually work for nothing but their salary, and that is how it should be. We write up our results in papers, and then, quite often, we pay the journal to publish our work, and then pay again to buy the journal in which it appears. [That, together with the crisis in peer review, is what persuades me that the current publishing system is broken, but that is a different story.].
We travel the world to give talks for nothing (well just occasionally a small honorarium). Not infrequently we don’t even get paid the full cost of travel.
And those of us who blog, mostly do that for free too. This site costs nothing but a few pounds a year for the domain name, and that comes from my own pocket [and a lot more of my time than I could have afforded when I was doing full time science).
I’m not grumbling about any of this. On the contrary, I enjoy the science and I enjoy the blogging. I am (or was) adequately paid. What more can one ask? The great virtue of not being paid is that you are behoven to nobody. The whole point of science, and the whole point of blogging, is to provide an independent opinion, your own opinion, on matters of science.
I’m only grateful that so many people seem to feel that some of the things I say are worth reading. I do it because it is interesting, it is fun, and it might even do a bit of public good.
Any hint that you may be selling a story on behalf of someone else is the kiss of death, both in real science and in blogging. It doesn’t have to be real, just the perception is enough to ruin your credibility.
To expect independent scientific views from Pepsi is whistling in the wind. Everyone knows about the hugely powerful lobbying by the food industry. The ruthlessness of the industry is, one might argue, counter-productive, because even if they were to produce a totally honest assessment of the evidence, nobody would believe it.
Anyone who has been involved in the battle against junk medicine knows that one is always accused of being a shill for Big Pharma. Of course the purveyors of junk medicine are not very good at checking their facts. If they were, they’d be in a more honest job.
Bhopal report blocked by Seed Magazine
The interesting thing about this sort of kerfuffle is that it brings new facts out of the woodwork. In today’s Guardian, Gala Vince wrote ‘This isn’t the first time Seed has sacrificed editorial independence‘ A piece she wrote about one of the major shameful disasters of the 20th century, the Bhopal catastrophe, was not published by Seed, because it might have endangered advertising income from the Dow Chemical Company (they are the nice folk who made Agent Orange and Napalm). There is no doubt about this, because Vince quotes an email from Seed that told her.
“As for Bhopal, it’s a cautionary call on our part as we’re in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow”
This sort of behaviour is much scarier than taking paid blogs from Pepsico, if only because it was secret at the time. The wonderful thing about blogs is that it isn’t secret now. It shows that, notwithstanding their fine words, Seed is not serious about scientific independence if it endangers their income.
Science and commerce don’t mix
Seed pay their contributors per page view, though I haven’t yet been able to discover how much (will anyone tell me?)
Most of the people who write for Scienceblogs do not rely on what they get paid by Seed for their bread and butter. Many of those I like best are practising physicians and surgeons. No doubt they are far richer than I have ever been. In my view they should leave Scienceblogs right now, before they lose any more credibility. Several already have.
If anyone doubts the corrupting effects of commercial interests in medicine, listen to this year’s Sense about Science lecture by Fiona Godlee (editor of the BMJ). The podcast has appeared on The Guardian’s web site. And if you are interested in the corrupting effects of commercial pressures in the alternative medicine industry there are plenty of sources in the links at the bottom of the right hand sidebar.
Or just read the admirable Orac, lately (I hope) of Scienceblogs.
Interesting. I got a direct message from one blogger on Twitter, in answer to my question about how much Seed pays bloggers.
“Seed pays peanuts: I usually get $100 – $200/ month, depending on # of page views. It goes up in increments of $25 per 10,000 extra visitors”
That’s a bit more than I’d guessed, but hardly a significant contribution to the pay of most people who write for them.