13 October 2013

The World of Science and Innovation is No Place for Discrimination

One WorldThis is, nominally, a blog about patents.  But I like to think that it is a bit more than that – I endeavour, when I can, to write about the role of patent law, practice and policy in a broader social context.  I believe strongly in the importance of discovery and innovation to the prosperity and improvement of individuals, communities, nations and humanity at large, and therefore that the ways in which we encourage and foster these activities are also vitally important.

The universe is full of mysteries, and the world of problems in need of solutions.  OK, so some of those problems – such as how to signal to the user of a touchscreen device that they have reached the end of a scrollable page – are of a decidedly ‘first world’ nature (though they are nonetheless important to the prosperity of innovative companies).  However there are other challenges – such as how best to bring the benefits of pharmaceutical innovations to populations in the developing world – which genuinely test the limits of our resolve to apply human ingenuity for the benefit of all.

It is, I believe, self-evident that the more people we have involved in the entire process of innovation – in basic research, in development, in commercialisation, in policy-making, and so forth – the more progress will be made.  It is, therefore, utterly unacceptable for anybody to be excluded from the endeavour, or discriminated against, on the basis of gender, skin colour, age, sexuality, or any other irrelevant consideration.  This is, of course, equally true in all fields of human endeavour, but I think we are entitled to expect that those built on a rational scientific foundation, and populated substantially by the privileged and highly-educated, should be leading the way in this regard.

Which is why I count myself among the large number of people who have been rightly outraged by the treatment of Scientific American blogger DNLee in recent days.  Indeed, she experienced two successive acts of discrimination: firstly by some low-life blog editor at Biology-Online.org, who called her a ‘whore’ because she had the temerity to say ‘no’ to providing them with free content; and then again by Scientific American itself, which removed her post reporting on the incident on the spurious basis that Scientific American ‘is a publication for discovering science’ and that ‘the post was not appropriate for this area’.

About DNLee And The Urban Scientist

I am not sure how DNLee would refer to herself, so I shall play safe and say that she is a scientist, and a woman of colour.  Her short profile on her Urban Scientist blog at Scientific American (Google it if you wish – the site is getting no links from me in the current circumstances) states that she

…is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The tag-line for The Urban Scientist blog says: ‘A hip hop maven blogs on urban ecology, evolutionary biology & diversity in the sciences.’  This seems a pretty clear indication that the blog is not just about ‘discovering science’, but also about the politics and business of science in a broader social context.

What Happened – Biology-Online.org

With Scientific American having removed DNLee’s account of events, her friend and fellow blogger Dr Isis has reposted the article in full on her Isis The Scientist blog.  I encourage you to click through and read it.  But in brief:
  1. an editor called ‘Ofek’ at Biology-Online.org emailed DNLee (unsolicited) to ‘invite’ her to contribute a monthly guest article to their blog;
  2. she responded with a few polite questions, including a query about their payment rates;
  3. Ofek replied with a few polite answers, including that they do not pay for guest articles, although they provide lots of exposure and, by the way, even a really famous middle-aged white guy happily contributes for free;
  4. DNLee politely declined the invitation;
  5. Ofek replied again, asking her ‘are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?’
Pardon me, dear readers, for the implied profanity, but I honestly think that the only valid response to that is ‘WT very F?!’

What Happened Next – Scientific American

Quite reasonably, DNLee wrote about her experience on The Urban Scientist.  It seems to me that it fits squarely within the scope of the subject ‘diversity in the sciences.’  Anybody trying to create an inclusive environment within their field or industry would doubtless be horrified at the thought that they may have their own Ofeks within their ranks (though, sadly, they are still plentiful).

Yet Scientific American removed the post from The Urban Scientist blog.  When called on this decision – Twitter went crazy over it, as Twitter is wont to do – editor Mariette DiChristina explained the decision as follows:
sciam response

There is, however, an alternative explanation that has been put forward by Dr Isis (profanity warning, by the way, though completely justified in my view).  It turns out that Biology-Online.org is a member of the ‘Scientific American Partner Network’.


I regularly receive unsolicited emails relating to my work on this blog – offers to provide guest posts to Patentology, invitations to provide guest posts (always for free) to other blogs and publications, and offers to improve my ‘search engine optimisation’ from ‘consultants’ who have noticed that my site does not rank highly on search engines such as Google.

Notably, not one unsolicited offer to write for this blog has come from anyone remotely qualified to do so – they are almost always marketing specialists whose real objective is to spruik one of their clients’ products.  And I know for a fact that, for relevant search terms, this blog does rank highly on Google.

I do occasionally write guest posts, or allow other publications to republish my articles, without payment.  And, yes, I do it for the exposure, and I am selective about it.  But that makes sense for me, because my day job is being a patent attorney, and I do not seek to make money directly from this blog.  If I made a living from writing about topics within my field of expertise, I would be an idiot to give so much content away for free to commercial outlets. 

As Australian author and comedian Catherine Deveny recently pointed out at moneycircle.com, the people who ask her to work for free, for the ‘cause’ and/or the ‘exposure’, are usually getting paid themselves.  She refuses them (and it is a matter of public record that she has been called worse things than ‘whore’ for standing up for what she believes in).

I, on the other hand, have never been called a ‘whore’, or anything remotely similar, for refusing or ignoring unsolicited requests to work for free.  Sadly, if I were a woman, or if I were non-white or a member of some other minority group, it is all too likely that I would have a different story to tell, just like DNLee.

What happened to DNLee is not acceptable.  It is never acceptable.  Scientific American should not have censored her account of it.  On the contrary, they should have called their ‘Partner Network’ member on it, and insisted that Biology-Online.org address the issue with Ofek to ensure that it never happens again.

If the fields of science, innovation and progress cannot be welcoming of all people, from all backgrounds, then what hope is there in other areas of society?

Image Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos


Harry Weaver said...

Circulated, as is appropriate in the open access spirit.

Andy said...

Hi Mark

As always, this is an excellent article.
My only comment is in relation to your conclusion that "Sadly, if I were a woman, or if I were non-white or a member of some other minority group, it is all too likely that I would have a different story to tell" is that I hope your conclusion wouldn't change regardless of you being a woman etc . I am sure that not all women and people from minority groups (whites and non-whites) would use their minority status to further the cause of good science.

Mark Summerfield said...

Hi Andy

Actually, I suspect that much of the 'bad science' committed in the course of history has emerged from dominant groups, in support of their hegemony. Phrenology and eugenics would be just two examples. Members of minorities are more likely to be marginalised, even if they are doing good science (or doing good for science).

As for what I might be doing if I were someone different, who knows? Maybe I would not have had the same opportunities that I have had as a white male. I certainly would not have experienced them in the same way.

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