I thought I’d buried the hatchet with Research Outreach

…but they dug it back up!

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

The backstory here is that I wrote a post a couple of years ago that expressed some not very flattering opinions about a publication called Research Features. A while later, their Editorial Director emailed me that she was “interested and concerned” about what I had written and asked if we might talk on the phone. When I replied that I’d rather discuss it by email, she left the conversation and never came back. I later found out that their writers were only paid £50 for each article, and I wrote about that. This year, I learned that the same people had started a new publication, Research Outreach, that seemed to have cleaned up its act relative to Research Features, and I wrote about that. Their Operations Director responded with a couple of very nice comments, which I posted in their entirety.

It turns out that while I was making nice with Research Outreach, they were bolting the doors and tuning up to play “The Rains of Castamere.” Unbeknownst to me, the very same day their operations director made those nice comments (and even unblocked me on Twitter), the founder of Research Outreach, Simon Jones, was trying to shut me up. Last Tuesday, my employer’s legal department forwarded me an email Mr. Jones sent to them back in June. The email calls my blog post “slanderous” (wouldn’t that be libelous? Slander is spoken, libel written. Simon does not seem to be a lawyer).

It also says that Research Outreach “have not, and have no desire too [sic], engage with Matthew Herron.” That is a big, fat, and easily disproven lie. Research Outreach have engaged with me, and you can see their engagement here, here, and here. There was also the “interested and concerned” email from their editorial director. Simon, you should talk to your staff more often.

The email alleges damage to Research Outreach‘s reputation, factually incorrect information, and “highly negatively biased information.” However, the email provides neither evidence of bias nor examples of factually incorrect information. All of this builds up to a thinly-veiled threat of legal action, but it never specifies what Simon would consider a satisfactory remedy.

So what does he want? Simon,

–and I’m sorry but I can’t resist–

…never says.

The irony of all this is that while Simon was making thinly-veiled legal threats, I was writing some pretty nice things about Research Outreach:

Research Outreach was upfront about their business model, which is writing and publishing very professionally produced press releases for scientists, who are charged around $2000 for the service…Based on what I can see, I no longer think there’s anything “sketchy” about what they’re doing…At any rate, I do appreciate the improved transparency, and I appreciate their Operations Director taking the time to respond.

A week earlier, I wrote,

I’m a big believer in scientific outreach; that’s why I started this blog. I’m still not sure how I feel about the business model of Research Outreach, but unlike Research Features, it doesn’t strike me as deceptive. Have they turned over a new leaf? Maybe these are just well-intentioned people who made some unfortunate decisions early on.

And their director of operations, Alastair Cook, basically agreed with that assessment:

This might also be a good time to explain our response to that blog entry. It, of course, came to our attention, and one of our team reached out via email, as we figured a direct line and genuine human conversation would be more appropriate than a discussion in the comments. We were then, perhaps unwisely, advised by an external consultant not to engage with you. Since then, we have spent time reflecting on our approach to marketing Research Features’ services, and how transparently that services package was being displayed. After going over things with a few consultants, we decided it would be neater and more transparent to launch a separate, unrelated organisation as a non-profit Community Interest Company to make it clear that we do not profit from the research community. Our site is designed to be as transparent as possible on this matter, as you’ve raised in your commentary above.

So I sincerely thought I was done with Research Outreach. It still didn’t seem to me like a service I’d want to use, but I had no real objection to other researchers using it, provided they didn’t misrepresent it as journalism. I didn’t have any intention of writing more about it. That is, obviously, out the window now. I wonder if Alastair and the rest of Research Outreach‘s staff are aware that their founder’s response to opinions he doesn’t like is intimidation. I’ll let them know, just in case.

Georgia Tech’s legal department has told me that they intend to respond to Simon that they don’t consider this a Georgia Tech matter. Despite Simon’s feeble argument to the contrary (my university page links to matthewherron.net, which links to Fierce Roller), it isn’t. Fierce Roller, as my About me page specifies, is my personal blog, not in any way affiliated with Georgia Tech:

This is my personal blog, and nothing I write here should be assumed to represent the views of my employer, graduate and postdoc advisors, lab members, or anyone else not pictured above.

Pictured above” is me and my dog. And that language has been there since long before I ever heard of Research Features.

Simon had several routes available to him if he didn’t like what I wrote. He could have commented on the blog, as I have invited anyone from Research Outreach to do (I have never blocked a commenter for disagreeing with me, and I even elevated Alastair’s comment to its own post to make sure my readers would hear his side). He could have emailed me with his concerns and told me what he thought I got wrong. He could have written a response and published it himself (he does run two magazines, after all). He could have ignored me, knowing that attempts to silence criticism often backfire.

With all those options on the table, what Simon chose instead was a clumsy attempt at intimidation. I don’t know what he thought an email to my employer would accomplish. Shutting me up? Getting me fired? What it actually accomplished was this post, along with his email forwarded to every member of Research Outreach‘s staff whose email address I can find. If they are, as I have suggested and Alastair confirmed, “just well-intentioned people who made some unfortunate decisions early on,” I doubt they’re going to be thrilled.


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