SciAm and Danielle N. Lee

If you follow the science blogging world and have been online this weekend, you will likely have heard of an interaction Danielle N. Lee, PhD. had with someone who asked her to work for him for free and got outrageously insulting when she politely turned him down. I mean, really insulting.

Basically, an editor (identified only as “Ofek”) asked Danielle to contribute to his site, “,” as a guest blogger. She quite reasonably asked what would be expected of her and how much she’d be paid. He said there’d be no pay and trotted out the old, incredibly stale chestnut about the gig being exposure.

Dr. Lee declined, and Ofek asked her if she was a whore. I kid you not. You can see, if you read DNLee’s summation of the interaction here, part of why I (among many others) like Danielle’s writing very much. She doesn’t hide her anger about having been insulted,  but she persists in speaking to Ofek as a human being, describing just why he is in grievous error, and addressing how he can avoid making the same sort of egregious mistake in the future.

Dr. Lee’s response was originally posted on her blog at Scientific American. As of this writing, you can’t see it there. That’s because on Friday night, her post was removed by SciAm’s management.

That removal happened without explanation, from what I understand, until early Saturday morning, at which point SciAm’s Senior VP Mariette DiChristina offered a cursory comment on Twitter:

Maryn McKenna has a typically cogent response to the issue, as well as a great list of links to others’ takes on the matter. Responses have ranged from accusations that SciAm is more interested in the health of its advertising arrangements than in its contributors (it has one such arrangement with to pointing out that the way people treat young women scientists of color is very much part of “discovering science.”

I want to say something about the relationship of writers and editors that’s relevant here.

I have spent a considerable amount of my professional life working as an editor. Sometimes I’ve been in a position to pay my writers. More often, I’ve had to ask writers to contribute their work without pay, or at least without direct pay. There are kinds of pay other than money. The feeling of contributing to an important campaign is one such. Getting the word out on an issue about which you feel passionately is another. I wouldn’t have been able to do half the work I’ve done without other writers who’ve consented to work with me without a paycheck.

Their willingness to work with me anyway bestowed an immense responsibility on me as an editor. When I couldn’t write a check, I had to offer those writers something else in return.

Whether or not a writer gets paid, it is an editor’s job to make a writer look good. Polishing their words, straightening out unclear sentences, fact checking and  ground-truthing, keeping them from making embarrassing errors in public//print, and sending pieces back with requests to flesh out aspects the writer missed are all part of the job.

Many of those parts of an editor’s job have been scaled back as demands on editors’ time increase. Other tasks such as promoting those writers’ work have been increasingly foisted onto editorial from declining PR staffs.  But the soul of those tasks remains:

Editors are supposed to have their writers’ backs.

You advocate for the writers’ ideas by clarifying the way in which those ideas are expressed. You advocate for the writers by demanding they be treated with the respect they are due. I’m privileged to have an editor at KCET who definitely has my back, and I have worked with a number of other such.

And on the other side of the spectrum, just as there are writers who really ought to turn their talents to other areas, there are editors who work their whole lives without living up to the obligations they owe to their writers. They might dent prose to suit their own tin-eared rules, or ask writers for substantive revisions that they then rescind because they have no idea what the piece is about. They might introduce errors of fact through their own ignorance or sloth. They make their writers look bad.

Danielle N. Lee wrote a light-hearted, compelling piece about a day in the life of a woman scientist of color and the odious disrespect  that came her way as a result of her insisting on professional treatment. Scientific American chose to delete that post without notice, calling it “inappropriate,” but so far has said nothing about the behavior of the staff at its partner organization that prompted the post.

Without talented, engaging writers like Danielle, the editors at Scientific American would have to find other work, and SciAm’s partner organizations would not be able to ride those coattails.

Time to start backing up those who generate income for you, SciAm.

4 thoughts on “SciAm and Danielle N. Lee

  1. F

    Yet another perspective, this concentrating on lack of editorial responsibility! O SciAm, how hast thou failed? Let us count the ways…

  2. Bill Worzel

    I must admit that I’ve long thought SciAm is a very self-serving, glam-science publication.

  3. Bill A

    Good story. Sci Amer is not what it once was. That’s why many are dropping subscriptions or replacing them with publications such as AMERICAN SCIENTIST.