Friday, October 11, 2013

Respect in Science: When saying "No" gets you called a "Whore". #StandingwithDNLee

What do you get when you are a busy scientist and you are asked to do work for free for a supposedly professional science-based blog, but you respond politely with "Thank you very much, but I have to decline your offer. Have a great day." (paraphrased)?

It turns out that you get called a whore.

This happened to biologist and STEM promoter DNLee. This happened just recently, as in within the last 48 hours. Rather than silently feel rightly outraged yet powerless to counteract the most blatant unprofessional conduct I have heard of in a long time, DNLee shines the world's largest halogen light on this bad behavior and shares the interaction via blog and video.

Like many others, I am sharing DNLee's blog post. This is my small part to keep the light shining on this grotesquely unprofessional behavior. As the old adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Here is DNLee's post, unedited (in-between the dashed lines):

wachemshehao hao kwangu mtapoa

I got this wrap cloth from Tanzania. It’s a khanga. It was the first khanga I purchased while I was in Africa for my nearly 3 month stay for field research last year. Everyone giggled when they saw me wear it and then gave a nod to suggest, “Well, okay”. I later learned that it translates to “Give trouble to others, but not me”. I laughed, thinking how appropriate it was. I was never a trouble-starter as a kid and I’m no fan of drama, but I always took this 21st century ghetto proverb most seriously:

Don’t start none. Won’t be none.

For those not familiar with inner city anthropology – it is simply a variation of the Golden Rule. Be nice and respectful to me and I will do the same. Everyone doesn’t live by the Golden Rule it seems. (Click to embiggen.)

The Blog editor of Biology-Online dot org asked me if I would like to blog for them. I asked the conditions. He explained. I said no. He then called me out of my name.

My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately:”Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”

This is my official response:

It wasn’t just that he called me a whore – he juxtaposed it against my professional being: Are you urban scientist or an urban whore? Completely dismissing me as a scientist, a science communicator (whom he sought for my particular expertise), and someone who could offer something meaningful to his brand.What? Now, I’m so immoral and wrong to inquire about compensation? Plus, it was obvious me that I was supposed to be honored by the request.

After all, Dr. Important Person does it for free so what’s my problem? Listen, I ain’t him and he ain’t me. Folks have reasons – finances, time, energy, aligned missions, whatever – for doing or not doing things. Seriously, all anger aside…this rationalization of working for free and you’ll get exposure is wrong-headed. This is work. I am a professional. Professionals get paid. End of story. Even if I decide to do it pro bono (because I support your mission or I know you, whatevs) – it is still worth something. I’m simply choosing to waive that fee. But the fact is I told ol’ boy No; and he got all up in his feelings. So, go sit on a soft internet cushion, Ofek, ’cause you are obviously all butt-hurt over my rejection. And take heed of the advice on my khanga.

You don’t want none of this

Thanks to everyone who helped me focus my righteous anger on these less-celebrated equines. I appreciate your support, words of encouragement, and offers to ride down on his *$$.



The time and talents of professionals are worth something. It matters that people, specifically scientists, realize this. Too often I hear of colleagues underselling themselves, or assuming that if they demand some sort of fair compensation for their time (e.g. consulting, documentaries, etc.) that the prospective benefactor of the talents will go elsewhere, or under-represent them. Always expecting that a highly trained professional will do everything for free disrespects their time and expertise.

To put the crap icing on top of the pile of a cake, the insult had to take a sexist approach by using the time-tested term of "whore." [Begin sarcasm] Yup, nothing puts an uppity woman in her place like calling her a whore. [End sarcasm]. This was disrespect for DNLee as both a scientist and a person.

The only way this kind of behavior will end is if these incidents are not shoved in the dark closets or swept under the rugs. Don't just dismiss this behavior, or feel that you can do nothing about it. Call it out. Expose it to the sunlight and let it shrivel and die.

Off to do my job as a researcher and collections manager for which I get paid.

Shaman out.

Update: 12-10-2013

On the blog Isis the Scientist, Dr. Isis lays down the hard truth concerning Scientific American's removal of DNLee's original post. Follow the link and read. Whether that was the intent or not, Scientific American's removal of DNLee's post (and the subsequent justification of said removal on the grounds that it wasn't science-y enough) felt like a continuation of the original disrespect shown to DNLee by the editor of Biology-Online dot org. The situation was not pretty, but deleting it will not remove the problem, especially if the problem is one of disrespecting a scientist using abusive and sexist language.

Update #2

The editor of Scientific American's blog recently posted on Twitter that they are still collecting information.

Scientific American blogs editor Twitter statement. Follow the link here to read the replies.
We'll have to wait and see what the official statement is. I'm definitely curious!

As a completely personal opinion, the outrageous behavior that was highlighted in this incident, as well as all those incidents that continue to be under-reported, isn't magically "fixed" by singing the "I'm Very Sorry" song. When a person's go-to response is to trot out a sexual and race based insult, that speaks to the character and maturity of the person. If they have not yet internalized that a) this type of behavior is intolerable and (most importantly) b) WHY this type of behavior is unacceptable, there are larger issues at work than just an "Oops, I made a mistake in judgement", or worse "It was just a joke!" defense. You do not get to pick-and-choose to whom you behave professionally. Period.

No matter what the final outcome of this is incident is, it demonstrates that there is still a long way to go before discrimination is culled from the world of science and science communication. Everyone needs to keep exposing these incidents to the light of day, not just for ourselves, but for all those who will follow in our academic footsteps.


Update: 13-10-2013

The Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American has posted a more formal statement. Read it here:

As another completely personal opinion, reading this left me feeling rather unsatisfied. I realize they are not yet complete in their information gathering, but here are a couple of items that spring to mind (and to the minds of many who left comments on the recent post, now that I had finished reading their comments) that I still find troubling:

1) In no way was their any mention that the behavior (hell, phrase it as "alleged behavior" if there is a need for hiney-covering) of the Biology-Online editor was inappropriate and unacceptable. A simple statement along the lines of "if this is indeed what transpired, it was wrong" would have sufficed. Respected science organizations need to step up and emphasize that mistreatment of any professional is unacceptable. Institutions such as Scientific American have the ears and eyes of so many, interested public and professionals alike, that they should be at the forefront of promoting professionalism in science. This includes letting people, especially their bloggers, share their less than smiley experiences and how they dealt with said experiences. Their stories and experiences are our stories, too. Science and science communication are the last places where dark corners should be acceptable.

2) I am not sure how the statement originally made by the Editor-in-Chief regarding the removal of DNLee's post
Link to the original post on Twitter.

is connected to the statement "Unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post." The initial post stated that what DNLee experienced and her response was not suitable for Scientific American. This recent post states that they need to investigate for legal reasons. Those sound like two completely different reasons for removing the post.

There are still specific issues that will need to be addressed to help move on from this incident, such as how Biology Online will address their editor's actions, and how Scientific American and Biology Online are connected.

We will see what happens. For now, my phasianid theropod is roasting in the oven covered with the leaves of several species of aromatic angiosperms and the liquid from fermented grapes. Have a Happy Geeksgiving!


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