Plight of the urban whore—ahem—science writer

SciAm faces internet fury for pulling a post about minorities in science

On Thursday afternoon, biologist Danielle N. Lee, who writes about ecology and diversity in science for her Scientific American blog, Urban Scientist, received an email. An editor from, an aggregator and a partner site of SciAm wanted Lee to write for the site.

Upon learning the assignment would be unpaid, according to Wired, Lee replied with a polite rejection: “Thank you very much for your reply. But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.”

Here’s when things get unacceptable. The editor replied: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”

Lee took to her SciAm blog, where she writes often about the experience of women and minorities in science, to write about the interaction. Then, on Friday, her post disappeared. (You can read her full piece on Isis the Scientist where it’s been republished.)

SciAm editor in chief Mariette DiChristina responded to the internet fury (Seriously, just skim through the hashtag #StandingwithDNLee for a minute. I’ll wait.) with a Tweet on Friday, justifying getting rid of the article:

If you consider how SciAm differs from most science publications, part of this argument makes sense. Its niche is providing clear analysis of scientific literature and linked discoveries, not developing creative narratives. Though SciAm’s website is slightly less structured than the magazine, its writers don’t display the brash personalities typical of blogging-land, and they rarely delve into personal topics. DiChristina is right that Lee’s post doesn’t read as typical SciAm fare.

But Lee likely didn’t publish the post on SciAm because she felt that it was the most fitting place for her piece; she published it because it was an important discussion that needed a host—and SciAm is the platform she had. And, as the writers who’ve lept to Lee’s defense have pointed out (including authors on SciAm’s network, though they still haven’t restored Lee’s original post) hostility thrown at women and people of color—which helps perpetuate their extraordinary underrepresentation in scientific fields—is certainly a relevant topic for a magazine about discovering science.

After the internet fury reached fever pitch, DiChristina released a fuller statement apologizing for the hasty tweet and shedding light on why they pulled the blogpost:

Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post. Although we regret that this was necessary, a publisher must be able to protect its interests and Scientific American bloggers are informed that we may remove their blog posts at any time when they agree to blog for us. In removing the post, we were in no way commenting upon the substance of the post, but reflecting that the underlying facts were not confirmed.
It’s not quite an apology, not quite a defense, but more importantly, DiChristina promised readers that the incident would prompt fuller coverage of these sorts of complexities, including commissioning Lee to produce “a thoroughly reported feature article about the current issues facing women in science and the related research.” Here’s hoping some productive discussion can rise out of the disrespect.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: ,