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ScienceBlogs and PepsiCo: Rethinking blog networks and ethics

ScienceBlogs and PepsiCo: Rethinking blog networks and ethics

Picture of Peter Lipson

One of the wonderful things about blogs is their independence. Most are hosted by Wordpress or Blogger and there isn't much advertising or sponsorship. Notable exceptions are blog collectives, such as ScienceBlogs and the Discover Magazine blog network. These networks have significant advantages, including technical support, increased reach, and collegiality (your results may vary).

One of the potential disadvantages is advertising and sponsorship. At ScienceBlogs, we've been very fortunate in that our content is completely independent. We control anything in the center column. The top and right however belong to Sb, and they use this space to keep the place running. There have been several times when the advertising has been less-than-appropriate, and SEED has responded by altering it, but in this economy, it pays to be flexible. Ad content can serve as blog fodder. There's nothing preventing those of us who blog here from critiquing the ad content as vigorously as we wish to.

While the various bloggers under the ScienceBlogs banner are independent of Sb and of each other, there is certainly a penumbra of association. We all may benefit from good publicity, and we may be harmed by bad publicity, even if it comes from other blogs in the network. Given that we may benefit from good publicity generated by the network, it could be argued that we bear some responsibility when we don't speak out against bad practices on the network.

All that is my way of justifying what I am about to write: ScienceBlogs is launching a new blog, and in doing so they are making a spectacularly foolish decision. Today they announced a new blog called Food Frontiers, and I think a few simple quotes will allow you to see why I'm concerned.

On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I'd like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, a new project presented by PepsiCo. As part of this partnership, we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

So PepsiCo's PR flacks basically own the center column content on one of our blogs.  This is not only a fundamental conflict of interest, it's also deceptive.  If PepsiCo is providing the content, it should, in my opinion, be clearly labelled as advertising.  It could be argued that since it is clearly announced that the content is PepsiCo's, that transparency is maintained, but it's not.  Readers of the other 70-odd blogs at Sb expect independent content in the center column.  What's more, Sb is indexed by Google News.  As a news outlet, we should be held to a high standard.  If the SEED management can't see what's wrong with this, this may be an insoluble problem.

Comments

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Seed editor's internal letter to ScienceBlog contributors (including Dr. Peter Lipson) has been leaked - read it here: http://bit.ly/bo1DqI. ScienceBlog editor Evan Lerner also has posted a response on the ScienceBlogs site at http://bit.ly/dwbObd and has graciously allowed ReportingonHealth to cross-post that response here.

Picture of Maryn McKenna

I've added my Sciblogs entry here at Reporting on Health as well, with Barbara's OK, to comment on/reply to Peter's excellent post.

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