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By Tracie Powell

Throughout its 168 year history, Scientific American is known as much for its writers as it is for its exploration of science and technology. Many famous scientists, including Albert Einstein, have written for the magazine.

Danielle Lee2Danielle Lee is another one of its well-known scientific writers. Lee, a biologist who studies animal behavior, mammals and the ways organisms interact with their environment, earned a doctoral degree in biology from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, was named Young Professional of the Year by the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, and her urban science blog was named a finalist for the 2011 Black Weblog Award in the best science and technology category. When not blogging, Lee works for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. By all accounts Lee is well-known and well-respected in scientific circles, but in the last two days her name has become synonymous with the terms “urban whore.” That’s because an editor at Biology-online allegedly called her that after Lee refused to blog for his website for free. “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore,” he wrote.

allDigitocracy won’t go much further into the back story, click here for that; this isn’t about the ongoing battle over paying writers for their work either. Rather than those two deserving topics, we want to focus instead on Scientific American’s response and how it unnecessarily involved itself in another publication’s controversy.

Suffice it to say Lee was angered by the editor’s name calling, as any professional writer woman would be, and she used her platform at Scientific American – as bloggers often do – to write about how it felt to be completely dismissed as an accomplished scientist and to have her work reduced so vulgarly. The subject matter is not new to Lee; she often blogs about diversity and gender issues for Scientific American, so it should have come to no surprise to editors when she blogged about this issue. Unfortunately readers can no longer see Lee’s post at Scientific American because the editor-in-chief, Mariette DiChristina, had it removed. DiChristina later took to Twitter to defend her decision:

Mariette DiChristina tweet

That’s when things really got ugly. Besides the ethical considerations of journalists unpublishing whole stories from websites (this should only happen in rare cases when a story or post violates the publication’s standards in some egregious way or when a life is put in danger), Scientific American apparently failed to take into consideration how readers would react, especially those who had already seen the post. Not only was the initial story picked up by the ever popular Buzz Feed, the website specializing in viral content also implicated Scientific American’s complicity in the controversy. Scientists around the globe are now protesting the magazine, taking to Twitter and other social media platforms to demand that their content also be removed from the site, stating their refusal to now use Scientific American’s materials in the classroom, and are dropping subscriptions. And they are calling on colleagues to take similar actions. On top of that, other bloggers have now picked up on the fact that there exists a business connection between Scientific American and Biology Online, the outfit that set off this firestorm to begin with.

“… Biology-online is part of the Scientific American Partnership Network, and prominent readers are now asking if this relationship led to the removal of Dr. Lee’s post from her SciAm blog. As you know this form of censorship will not stand with SciAm’s readers.  Scientific American’s editors will be compelled to comment publicly on why the post was removed, and this situation poses a threat to their reputation as well,” writes David Wescott, a public affairs professional who blogs about science, environmentalism, and feminism at It’s Not A Lecture.

An hour after her first tweet, DiChristina returned to Twitter to say that Scientific American’s “partnership” with Biology-online was not a factor in her decision to delete Lee’s post.

Still, the oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the United States should have known better, even more so (one would think) since its editor is a woman. If nothing else editors should explain its relationship with Biology-online and the editor who is accused of calling Lee out of her name. One would also think that editors at Scientific American would be empathetic about scientists getting riled when their work is not respected, but something tells me that Einstein never had to worry about being called a “whore,” let alone an urban one.

UPDATE 1: Scientific American’s Editor-in-Chief, Mariette DiChristina responds to “urban whore” controversy via letter to readers. Expresses commitment to covering “real and important issues regarding the treatment of women in science and women of color in science,” apologizes for deleting blog post without first contacting the writer, and promises further review of the matter. Still unfolding…

UPDATE 2: ABC News now reporting that the editor accused of referring to Dr. Danielle Lee as an “urban whore” has been fired.