Scienceblogs 'PepsiGate' goes from hyperbole to legitimate scandal
    By Hank Campbell | July 9th 2010 10:51 AM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I thought the 'PepsiGate' issue, as former Scienceblogs folks termed it, was overblown.  As I discussed in Symbol Stacks And Science Communication, it wasn't the first time they did it and Scienceblogs had become known this year for hosting public relations blogs rather than actual science blogging so singling out Pepsi seemed unfair.

    After all, I don't see a blog by HHMI or Brookhaven as being superior to one by Shell, Dow, Schering-Plough and all the rest of the corporate blogs they hosted.   Neither profit nor non-profit groups were doing any scathing reports on their employers but I believe all scientists are ethical until proven otherwise so it wouldn't have been fluff to keep them.
    But the whole thing may have long ago taken an insidious turn, beyond well-meaning "We think the conversation should include scientists from academia and government; we also think it should include scientists from industry" (as long as industry pays, that is) and into editorial interference, well before this latest blow-up.   Writing in the Guardian Science Blog, Gaia Vince says an article was spiked by Seed Media, magazine publisher and owner of (US and international) and, because it was critical of an advertiser who, not coincidentally, paid for a corporate blog on the site.   The response Vince got was
    We're not running the bhopal piece, and we're passing on the Maldive
    shark ban (a bit late now... Too bad it got caught up in prod week... ). As for Bhopal, it's a cautionary call on our part as we're in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow (who have been inspired by Seed's photography in their own brand campaigns).
    That is devastating stuff.   I have earnestly defended Adam Bly because I think his motivation was correct - industry researchers needed to be included - he had simply lost his ethical way in accepting money to host the blog and that is a problem that could be fixed, but this is something else entirely.

    Vince instead sent the article to the BBC, who does not regard its content as another tool in its advertising arsenal - or at least not so overtly.

    They need to correct this, and rather quickly.   Scienceblogs is a valuable brand - the big name in science blogging - but it will drop quickly if this is not contained and writers feel like they are again in control of their reputations.

    The very networking and science outreach work done by its contributors to make Scienceblogs a prestige name can also bring it down.

    See every article I can find on the PepsiGate scandal, originally from here.   If I missed any, let me know.

    Scienceblogs: Pharyngula - Say hello to…PepsiCo??!? WTF? - it does not matter what anyone else writes, PZ is 50% of their traffic and is the number one science blogging site all on his own if he walks, so the fact that he came down against this means Pepsi is gone.

    Knight Science Journalism Tracker: ScienceBlogs trashes its bloggers’ credibility - "The American Society of Magazine Editors has fought this fight for decades, working hard to establish standards for advertising in magazines."  and "Sometimes old media has something important to say to new media. This is one of those times."

    Guardian Science Blog: Scienceblogs, we have a problem - "Much of the reaction is focused, unsurprisingly, around the potential for conflicts of interest. PZ Myers wastes no time in being diplomatic. "

    Scienceblogs: Laelaps - A Pepsi-Induced Hiatus - "The launch of the PepsiCo blog sharply underscores my mounting frustration with SEED. The SEED management team has repeatedly failed to treat me and my fellow bloggers with courtesy and respect, and this latest event goes beyond disrespect into actively undermining our credibility."   While PZ Myers is The Guy at Scienceblogs, he has a certain wit and doesn't mind blowing people up, whereas Brian Switek is more the moral compass there, so this is not good.

    Scienceblogs: ERV - SciBlogs caves to hysterics - "In 2008-2009, we had a sponsored blog here by Invitrogen. As far as I know, Invitrogen had no apparent editorial control over what got posted there. As a result, the blog turned into an EPIC TRAIN WRECK, when several SciBloggers took it upon themselves to post anti-GMO rants. Now, none of these SciBloggers had any experience with GMOs in the lab. There was no science content in these posts. This was simply a platform for these people to use their position of privilege at ScienceBlogs to push a political agenda, completely devoid of science."   Whaaa?  Scienceblogs put its progressive agenda ahead of science?   Forget looking for Pepsi And Shell, someone should ask if the Democratic National Committee has been funding the site the entire time.

    Knight Science Journalism Tracker: ScienceBlogs trashes credibility: Leaked response from editor - "If the credibility of ScienceBlogs was in doubt this morning, it has vanished this afternoon."  They may be a little too delighted at the threatened and real departures.  Blogging is not journalism and their writers are, for the most part, not journalists, so some of this could be Old Media "I told you so".   Paul seems to think Scienceblogs is all of blogging, though he can be forgiven for that, since Scienceblogs people think the same thing.  They are 1/3 but the rest of us do just fine without "long-term sponsorship contracts".

    Southern Fried Scientist: Blogging with integrity - "It’s about trust. You trust us, or you don’t ... But the network matters too. The network lends credibility. Informally, many readers who trust our opinions also trust that we read well informed, honest blogs as well."  Here's a bit of reality from the many millions who did not trust the Scienceblogs network long before today - no one joined there because of trust, they joined because it is popular.   And it is popular because it is controversial, not because the science is better than many other places.  7 people have said they will leave, 4 likely will.  And they will be replaced rather quickly because readers may care about trust but writers there want to be read.

    Forbes blog: Pepsi Enrages Science Bloggers - "greatly diminishes the credibility of ScienceBlogs by providing a corporation with a platform to advertise to readers without actually calling it advertising"

    Guardian: Letter from Seed editor Adam Bly to contributors - "We think the conversation should include scientists from academia and government; we also think it should include scientists from industry."   But academic institutions can write for free because it increases prestige, whereas industry scientists need to write a check?

    Rennie's Last Nerve: Teetering “Chinese Wall” Falls on Scienceblogs - "As someone who spent almost 15 years as the editor in chief of science magazine where these kinds of conflicts between editorial and advertising always threatened to rear their head, I’m not unsympathetic to the bind that Sb found itself in."   "Unfortunately, in this case, Sb chose poorly, and the uprising among its bloggers is the result."

    Guardian: This isn't the first time Seed has sacrificed editorial independence - "As for Bhopal, it's a cautionary call on our part as we're in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow (who have been inspired by Seed's photography in their own brand campaigns)."  No surprise that they tried to spike stories that would harm them.  They have tried to spike entire sites that might cost them some money.

    The Scholarly Kitchen: The Pepsi Syndrome: Did ScienceBlogs Sell Out, or Was This Just Business As Usual? - "One of ScienceBlogs’ most prolific bloggers is an employee of the Public Library of Science, and a huge amount of what he writes is advertising for their journals. Bora is an interesting and compelling writer, but many of his posts are merely copy and paste listings of papers released in PLoS journals and their abstracts. He’s using ScienceBlogs as a marketing platform for his employer, promoting their content, adding valuable links to help search engine optimization, and actually gaming PLoS’ own system for article level metrics".  Look for Bora to respond with "But ... but ... they're CONSERVATIVES" to rally a defense for the companies that pay him.   Like the other site he uses 'conservative' as an insult for, though, this one is not involved in payola for blogs and killing stories for advertisers.

    The Consumerist: PepsiCo Buys Its Way Onto Science Blog Network As A Food Nutrition Expert - "Yesterday, PepsiCo placed a full-page, semi-permanent advertorial on the ScienceBlogs network. Or actually, it created a micro-site within ScienceBlogs to provide compelling user-centric content that builds PepsiCo's position as a thought leader in the field of nutrition. Or wait, no, it's actually a blog, just like all the other science themed blogs on the network."

    Wandering Gaia: Why I exposed Seed - "My reason behind telling this tale is that some people think that the ScienceBlogs fiasco has been a lot of fuss about nothing...Those who left the security of ScienceBlogs may not have jeopardised their entire earnings, but it was a brave decision and I want to let them know that they were right – this is not some one-off by Seed, the company is grubby and without integrity. And it should be revealed as such."

    Decision Tree:  PepsiCo at ScienceBlogs - "Whether we like it or not, the prepared food industry will be a major player in our food supply in the near future. We need to find novel ways to engage these companies to improve health and nutrition in society."

    Scienceblogs: Neuron Culture - A food blog I can't digest - "Hoo boy. I never thought I'd have to resign a blogging position in protest. But so I find."  Dobbs is a serious writer so blogging is not his primary income but is he taking an ethical stand or abandoning a place he loves when he needs it most?  Tough call.  If he does not change his mind, check him out at Neuron Culture.

    Scienceblogs: Respectful Insolence - Blindsided by my corporate overlords and PepsiCo - "There's a problem brewing and ScienceBlogs, a disturbance in the Force, if you will, and it's a doozy."   The Force?   Don't they call themselves The Borg?  That's a completely different show.

    Scienceblogs: Thus spake Zuska - "Perhaps a more interesting question is, should I be outta here now anyway? If an enterprise like ScienceBlogs cannot be funded except by taking money from sources that you and I, Dear Reader, deem offensive and unethical - why should I continue to contribute? "

    Scienceblogs: Causobon's Book - "But I'm asking that they separate out the Pepsi blog, and put Pepsi in the logo, and make it clear it falls in a different category than all the other blogs. Otherwise, my blog will be departing."

    Scienceblogs: Observations of a Nerd - "What bothers me far more than the presence of this sponsored blog is the mindset of commenters and non-Sciblings who have now decided to boycott ScienceBlogs for this."

    Scienceblogs: Good Math, Bad Math - "For now, I'm suspending my blog for a few days. If Seed decides to back out of this spectacular stupidity, then I'll start posting here again. If not, then I'll go looking for a new home for GM/BM."   Discover is going to be laughing all the way to the bank.   No one would leave for the same money, but if you make them mad, they will leave for less.

    Scienceblogs: Culture Dish - Culture Dish Doesn't Live Here Anymore
    - "I'm now on a Pepsi-Induced Hiatus, however like like David Dobb's and Blake Stacy's, my hiatus from ScienceBlogs will be permanent."

    Adam Bly rightly appeals to diversity, though for the wrong audience, while reminding them they are big and one writer or another bolting won't change that.  And maybe disclosing more than writers who chose to turn a blind eye to the obvious wanted to know:

    "Finally, let me address the economics. SB, like nearly all free content sites, is sustainable because of advertising. But advertising is itself highly unpredictable, as the last year has shown the industry. And securing advertising around topics like physics and evolution is even more challenging as the dearth of ad pages in science magazines indicates. We started experimenting with sponsored blogs a couple of years ago and decided to market long-term sponsorship contracts instead of sporadic advertising contracts."

    Scienceblogs: Common Knowledge - Of Pepsi and ScienceBlogs... - "...perspective means that the choice is understandable, not that the situation was handled well. If a site like SB is going to do this, then the entire process must be painfully transparent. I've watched as sites I love, like and some of the various Gawker blogs, began to accept sponsored links - but they are LABELED as such. "

    Discover: The Loom - Oh, Pepsi, What Hath Thou Wrought? - "Over the next couple weeks, I plan to build a list of bloggers who refused to drink the Kool Aid and tell you where to go to read them now." 

    Scienceblogs: Speakeasy Science - Jet Lag -  "So my questions at this point are mostly selfish - is the remaining community still a comfortable home? Some of my favorite bloggers have chosen, after all, to stay. Is this the right place for a chemistry and culture blog still? Was I wrong to give up the pure pleasures of a personal blog where I'm responsible for no one's mistakes but my own?"   It depends on why she went there.   I assume she read it prior to joining, so she likes their in-your-face attitude.  Or she liked the size and the audience.  Neither of those things have changed.

    Scienceblogs: Science is Culture (Adam Bly started a blog) - Referring to Wandering Gaia above, "If that's an email that came from someone here, then it reflects an isolated mistake. I would suggest asking Ms. Vince's other previous big employers in science media if they've made any." I guess he doesn't understand what science is, since he insists it is culture, but that is a different matter.    It is interesting that after nearly 5 years he finally started a blog.  The knock on him was always that he wouldn't respond to anyone on Scienceblogs, making them feel like they were just a marketing arm to sell Seed subscriptions.   Now it is the only thing that gives the company value.

    DC's Improbable Science: Pepsigeddon: why bloggers shouldn’t be paid - "Seed pay their contributors per page view, though I haven’t yet been able to discover how much (will anyone tell me?)"

    Scienceblogs: Abel Pharmboy - PepsiCo blog, Food Frontiers, is an affront to those who built the reputation of ScienceBlogs - "When I joined ScienceBlogs four years ago last month, I was contractually promised complete editorial control over my content, including the right to ridicule anything ScienceBlogs does, and have never once been asked to adjust any of my writing. Never. Not once. Nor has a single blogger I know ever been asked to alter content. I specifically point this out because the Food Frontiers blog lists Evan Lerner as ScienceBlogs editor - he does not edit my content or anyone else's."    I have to wonder that there is any legitimate discussion at all of the transparency of Pepsi researchers when the critic doesn't use his real name.

    Scienceblogs: Abel Pharmboy - Two questions about Pepsigate and #SbFAIL: Contracts, principles, and credibility - "There has been much congratulatory commentary regarding those bloggers who were "principled" and left ScienceBlogs in protest...However, is it implicit that those of us who remain at ScienceBlogs are "unprincipled" or are otherwise lacking in credibility?"  - It's a good question and, if it turns out the people who stayed are paid the most, self-answering.  He has a technical issue which prevented him from doing a poll on the issue but we are happy to help.   Typepad or whatever that thing is, is still PHP so we can get him set up in minutes.   In their defense, the people who staying may be the ones who realize now is when Scienceblogs needs them most - conduct Scienceblogs ridicules Catholics for regarding abuse scandals, etc.

    Scienceblogs: Observations of a Nerd - Why I'm Staying
    - "I couldn't see a reason to be more pissed at this instance than any other. After all, Seed has put a blog from Shell on here - let's be honest, a year ago, that could have been BP and no one would have blinked, even though now bloggers would be up in arms about it. There seems to me to be a bit of a double standard, that certain corporations are OK and others aren't."

    Scienceblogs: Brookhaven bits&bytes - A clarification - Kendra Wilkinson clarifies that "There's no money being exchanged between Brookhaven and ScienceBlogs.   Of course, we see this as a good public relations opportunity. But that doesn't mean that this space will only be used to redistribute press releases (and I hope our first posts have shown that)."    Well, those of us outside Scienceblogs do not doubt anyone in science outreach in advance, but that goes for corporate bloggers as well as institutional ones.    The fact remains that an independent blogger might be able to criticize Brookhaven and this blog will not.   So the only real difference is that Pepsi was forced to pay for access to the Scienceblogs audience.

    Cocktail Party Physics: growing pains - "I did note the World Science Fair and US Science&Engineering blogs when they appeared, and felt a twinge of dismay at the recent inclusion of blogs by specific research institutions rather than individuals. I just assumed this was part of an education and outreach effort on the part of SEED Media. Now, in the wake of Pepsipocalypse, I'm not so sure. I, personally, would really like to know which blogs are paying to be there"  ... well, we know that the World Science Festival and USA Festival barter advertising and we know that Weizmann, Brookhaven, etc. pay no money.   The fact remains that independent bloggers could be critical of any of those organizations if they choose whereas PR blogs, for-profit or not, whether we like them or not, cannot be anything but PR.

    True Slant: 'PepsiGate' Rocks the Science Blogging World - "PepsiGate may be over, but the questions it has raised about the commingling of marketing and journalistic content are just beginning to swarm in the blogosphere. And, clearly, much damage to the credibility of SEED and ScienceBlogs has already been done."

    SkeptiFem: Pepsi '10 - "...many people pointed out how other corporate blogging of the past on SB went on without outrage. Most people were unaware of it. It isn't like this was a one time lapse in judgment on the part of SEED on this issue, it has apparently happened a few times before, something you completely failed to mention in your defense- while in the next breath accusing the writer of the gaurdian article to be "unbalanced" for not reporting things that illustrate SEED's journalistic integrity."


    Gerhard Adam
    I think this is the underlying problem with media in general.  Too many organizations that have been trusted to be unbiased clearly aren't.  Newspapers, magazines, and television shows all demonstrate, time and again, that they are beholden to their advertisers and sources of revenue.  While this may be understandable from a business perspective it is inexcusable when considering the First Amendment protections of journalism.

    I think your original point was correct, but the skepticism that exists among most people is that money will trump all idealism.  While that doesn't make scientific organizations more credible, it does seem less likely that they will attempt ( or succeed) in spinning the results based on money alone.

    Are HHMI, or the SETI Institute getting a free pass?  Perhaps, but to most people while a scientific institution may have a bias or an agenda, there is the perception that legitimate challenges can occur and that ultimately more accurate information will prevail.  When it comes to corporate sponsors, the overwhelming perception is that there is no end to how unscrupulous they may be if it affects their bottom line.  Hence, an inherent distrust. 

    I think it's only fair to consider that this wasn't always the case, but it is based on a reputation that corporations have demonstrated over the past few decades that clearly indicates that their priorities are strictly self-serving.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Sure, and I was not singling out any institution.  The wonderful writer who does the Brookhaven blog on Scienceblogs is on my Twitter list - but that was my point; I cannot accept that because a person is in the corporate world they are less ethical.    For example, having a physics software tool, we gave it to grad schools at a discount.   We then found out that, despite the license agreement prohibiting it, the professors at too many schools getting it for peanuts were going to companies and undercutting our efforts to sell it by using it for 'consulting' at a much cheaper cost.

    To a large part of the corporate world, academics are less ethical because that scenario has been repeated time and again.

    Of course, that is not true, people are people and some are flawed.    I think Pepsi should have gotten a chance but I think they should have gotten it for the same terms other bloggers there got - getting paid to write there, not being forced to pay.
    Gerhard Adam
    It's interesting to see the following comment from ScienceBlogs:
    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? How do companies who seek genuine dialogue with this community engage? We'll open this challenge up to everyone on SB and beyond in the coming days so that we can all find the right solution.
    While this seems like an incredibly naive set of questions, it seems that there is a simple enough solution.  I don't believe scientists are prevented from publishing or participating in blogs unless the corporation wants to censor, monitor, control, etc. the content.  If companies want to pursue "genuine dialogue" then there is certainly no prohibition from that provided that they don't try to censor, monitor, control, etc. the content. 

    In short, if companies truly want to participate in such dialogues, then keep the advertising and PR departments out of it and don't try to control content.  Seems simple enough, so why the questions?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Right, it is the sort of NY pseudo-progressive fluff that is meaningless jargon to everyone but them.  It is obvious how you engage people in industry the same way they could engage Republicans and religious people if they wanted - stop only recruiting bloggers who want to fight culture wars and pissing on everyone who doesn't.  

    Adam is in an impossible position.   The very kind of intolerant person that made the site popular (in science blogging, anyway) also makes them completely unreceptive to anyone outside their political and cultural (and apparently, occupational) circle.

    We have journalists and book authors and researchers here.  Why do we not have this sort of drama every week?   The answer is obvious.
    Becky Jungbauer
    Why do we not have this sort of drama every week?   The answer is obvious.
    Because we're awesome acolytes, run by His Supreme Awesomeness?
    Because we are not drama queens who thrive on hysteria.  And I am not $20 million in debt running a failed magazine.  And also not an unethical pseudo-progressive huckster.

    But yeah, what you said too.   :)

    It is telling he only chose to start communicating with his bloggers yesterday, after his site blew up and 4.5 years after he started it.
    Gerhard Adam
    Adam is in an impossible position.   The very kind of intolerant person that made the site popular (in science blogging, anyway) also makes them completely unreceptive to anyone outside their political and cultural (and apparently, occupational) circle.
    I don't think it's impossible.  It should be fairly obvious that you don't sell a blog.  If you want to be recognized based on merit, then others must enter using the same criteria.  Once you sell it, it becomes advertising and no amount of spin is going to change that perception.

    What also seems to be the case is that they were looking for a source of revenue and, no doubt, it seemed like a good idea to sell access to Pepsi.  However, it should've been clear that doing so under the auspices of a blog rather than advertising would meet resistance.  I find it hard to believe that anyone engaged in business would truly be that naive.

    What also seems to come out of this, is that there was a definite "corporate" mindset behind this decision.  I find it equally hard to believe that during discussions (assuming there were some), that this particular issue didn't surface.  As a result, there is a strong perception that ScienceBlog's management did, in effect, "sell out" because it seems that they took little into consideration beyond the revenue that they would gain by the sale of the blog.
    Mundus vult decipi
    He did it numerous other times with other companies, and a month earlier, as I wrote in another article, they were gushing at the influx of 'institutional' (read: public information officer) blogs because they felt like it gave them legitimacy.  So he assumed this would be the same - he is paying bloggers, some of them a lot, and they can't duplicate that income anywhere else.

    People asked me months ago why I planned to change the name of the site and I told them, blogging really isn't what we do and the reputation of science blogging overall is going to be mud when this hits.  And hit it did.

    I am impressed by the principled few who walked away from the money but not at all disappointed in people who stayed.   They are making real money and they know, as I do, that a blog by Pepsi would not kill their reputation.