Professionalism in Science Writing

If you’re here, there is a good chance you know what I’m talking about. Bora Zivkovic, former editor at Scientific American and cofounder of the ScienceOnline conference, sexually harassed a number of women: of those who named Zivkovic and identified themselves, we know Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters, and Kathleen Raven. The circle of Twitter I occupy has veritably exploded with the news, and I suspect will—should—continue to discuss and work with these revelations for some time to come.

Kelly Hills, writing about biologist Dr. Danielle Lee being called a whore for refusing to write for Biology Online for free, mentioned a post of mine on science writing, authority, and responsibility. Considering the events of the last week, it seems an apt time to revisit issues of authority and power in the science writing community.

Talking with Thomas Levenson and Joanne Manaster, I claimed that I thought Zivkovic is, and given what we know, was bad at his job. This proved divisive, and I want to paint a clearer picture about what I mean in light of an idea building from authority and responsibility: professionalism.

Of Professionals and Professionalism

Science writing—journalism, blogging, communication—is an essential activity promoting a moral good. The scientific enterprise promotes value both as it generates knowledge, and allows that knowledge to be used to improve people’s lives. That knowledge, however, only realises a small part of its value when kept wrapped up in papers and conference proceedings. We need good ways of disseminating scientific knowledge, in order to promote science and its benefits, inform citizens of what happens to part of their taxes, and promote general education (which has a whole suite of follow-on benefits).  Science writing sits at the intersection between the lab coat and the person in the street; at its best it can make real differences to people’s lives.

When I look at science writers as a group, I see people pursuing the morally important activity of disseminating of scientific knowledge. They use a special set of skills: I challenge anyone who has tried to write to deny the significance of the skill of writing well. They teach each other the tools of their trade through collaboration, mentorship, conferences and social networks. And finally, they need to be autonomous to pursue their trade.

In my line of work, we call those people professionalsThe term is typically used to describe doctors, lawyers, and (historically) the clergy, but journalism is very much like a profession. Science writing fits even better into this paradigm, by virtue of its subject matter.

What Zivkovic did, however, was unprofessional in the extreme. Now, not every act of wrongdoing by a professional makes them a bad professional—a doctor cheating on their spouse doesn’t make them a bad doctor. Rather, as Hills has already noted, Zivkovic abused his power: the power he had as mentor and gatekeeper to the science communication world. By diminishing the self-worth of people vulnerable to him—by virtue of the role he occupied in their professional lives—he acted contrary to the institution in which he resided.

Zivkovic has also harmed the community at large—the “collateral damage” of which Janet Stemwedel writes. That, to me, is one of the lessons of the  #ripplesofdoubt hashtag. Even if Zivkovic’s abuses of power didn’t pervert his judgements about the quality of writers and their work (and there have been serious questions asked about the degree to which it has), the mere possibility is enough to cause havoc within the community. People who abuse their power change the communities they inhabit as much by their actions as by their omissions; Zivkovic’s transgressions were a corruption of the role he held. This is what made him bad at his job.

The Road Ahead

The revelations about Zivkovic’s actions have opened a wider conversation about the overall direction of the science writing community. Chad Orzel recently pointed out that science blogging has become “less a medium than an institution;” he’s also pointed out that ScienceOnline has become caught in between the image that “everyone is equal in the big happy Science Online family,” and the power structures that certainly exist within the community. Hills has also noted that the image of ScienceOnline as a group of friends hanging out actually make inclusiveness more difficult. The question of where ScienceOnline goes in the wake of Zivkovic’s actions has dovetailed into a larger discussion about what ScienceOnline should ultimately look like.

I believe that incorporating professionalism will improve the community’s ability to hold perpetrators accountable, and secure against further harassment. It will also help focus questions about what the community should strive to be. As ScienceOnline looks to continue its mission—and Scientific American, I sincerely hope, does a bit of soul-searching of its own—knowing what to fix can be aided by reference to what great practice must look like.

A vibrant professional culture in science writing, to me, means offering a diverse and inclusive set of perspectives. It also means having the processes to foster and encourage individuals with those perspectives to pursue both the deep knowledge required to write excellent pieces, and the tools to make that knowledge entertaining and accessible. It means—especially in the context of freelancers, who are incredibly vulnerable to abuses of power—protecting individuals from harassment by others within the community. It means establishing a stable and reliable platform for those harassed, assaulted, or otherwise harmed by others to raise their voices with the knowledge that they will be believed, and the matter fully and compassionately investigated; a platform that can, where necessary, criticise and sanction the leaders of the community. It means people in the community knowing—again, and with confidence—that success or failure in their field is judged on the quality of the work, not the unprofessional standards of the gatekeepers.

All of those things are necessary. Remove one, and you damage the edifice on which people’s livelihood’s rest.

It will take time, but individuals are already moving to offer suggestions on what comes next, such as Maryn McKenna’s thoughtful analysis of where ScienceOnline should go from here. Understanding the different elements of professionalism in science writing allows people looking for solutions to ask “does this allow us—the community—to better serve the needs of our members in fulfilling our professional mandate?” ScienceOnline, to their credit, already has a mission that loosely tracks this professional model. I think that an enduring legacy for ScienceOnline would be to build the safety of its members not simply as a separate policy, but as a central feature of this mission.

To finish, I want to acknowledge that Monica Byrne, Hannah Waters, and Kathleen Raven have done something truly heroic by sharing their stories, and bringing to light this unconscionable abuse of power. I’ve spent my words here on the institution that is science writing, but I want to make clear that any critique of institutions should begin with the recognition of personal stories. At great risk to themselves these remarkable people have exposed corruption within their community. That’s true professionalism.

One thought on “Professionalism in Science Writing

  1. Pingback: How do we respond to the Nature Publishing Group? | The Broken Spoke

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