Dr. Danielle Lee is a blogger for Scientific American and a zoologist at the University of Oklahoma who studies animals like the prairie vole and the giant pouched rat. Early in October, she received an invitation from “Ofek,” the pseudonymous blog editor at Biology-Online.org: “I encountered your blog ‘Urban Scientist’ and am wondering if you would be interested in joining us as a guest blogger…. You could serve as ‘educator’ and guide for your world of science.”
Lee was interested: “Please tell me more about this…. What are your payment rates for guest bloggers?” Ofek informed her that “we don’t pay” but suggested that writing for his site might “have a direct effect on the traffic and rank of your blog, and that in turn has a direct effect on advertising revenue.”
“Thank you very much,” replied Lee. “But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.” To which Ofek responded: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”
This much raises eyebrows, but there is more. Lee used her blog to decry the insult in a video posting. She not only challenged Ofek to treat others with more professionalism but also exhorted scholars to think about the value of their work and not to assume that “exposure” is the same thing as remuneration. “For far too long, the presumption has been that if you’re a woman, a person of color, or of a lower socioeconomic status…they can get you, your talent, your expertise and your energies for free.”
Within an hour, Lee’s response was removed by Scientific American as “not appropriate.” The blowback was immediate, and Scientific American was persuaded to reinstate the post. The incident, however, prompted another writer, Monica Byrne, to recount instances of sexual harassment from Scientific American’s chief blog editor, Bora Zivkovic. A forum on “brogrammer” culture ensued as other women came forward to complain about Zivkovic’s behavior. Zivkovic soon resigned. Afterward, a Twitter hashtag (#ripplesofdoubt) emerged that quickly exploded with firsthand accounts of misogyny, racism and intolerance in publishing, academia, business and the arts.
This incident began as an example of the shabby treatment of women in science, but Dr. Lee’s framing enlarges the question to include the fate of those—male or female—who labor in disciplines that have been feminized, deprofessionalized and undervalued in the digital economy. In a recent New York Times op-ed, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” Tim Kreider mused: “I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that leads people who wouldn’t ask a stranger to give them a keychain or a Twizzler to ask me to write them a thousand words for nothing.” Noting that today he’s paid less for full articles in prestigious news outlets than he was for his first published bit in a local alternative weekly back in 1989, Kreider mourns that the information economy seems to have rendered “‘paying for things’…a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.”