A lesser controversy at Scienceblogs

The case of the various kinds of blogs hosted on ScienceBlogs has come up on Newsweek, and I get quoted trying to explain how I’m unperturbed by a couple of institutional blogs here.

Not all bloggers feel this way, Myers included. “We’ve known about those [institutional blogs] for some time–they aren’t a problem,” he wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. “Those sites were set up under the same conditions as the blogs of corporate scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who works at Google, and university scientist PZ Myers, who works at the University of Minnesota. … [The Pepsi blog blurred] the boundary between advertising and content. I agree that the institutional blogs also blur that boundary, just not quite as much. I can’t insist that their blogs be labeled as advertisements, unless I want my blog marked as an ad for the University of Minnesota, or Chu-Carroll’s as an ad for Google. It’s complicated and messy.”

There is some confusion out there, however. I do not claim to represent the University of Minnesota. Mark Chu-Carroll did not claim to speak for Google. My point was that if you take any blogger and look at the chains of affiliations they have (as we all do), we do not try to argue that every possible connection is a direct conflict of interest that demands a prominent disclaimer on the web page.

We ought to reserve the term “ad” for situations where an interest has paid money to be promoted, as PepsiCo did. The Weizmann Institute did not. Google did not pay to have Chu-Carroll peddle the company line, and he didn’t. The University of Minnesota did not pay to have me scare away recruit potential students, although I may have done one or the other, accidentally. Weizmann, SETI, and Brookhaven have that in common with me and Chu-Carroll, and none of us cross the ethical barrier in the same way that PepsiCo did.

I actually think it’s a good idea for institutions to have blogs at places like Scienceblogs. One thing I mentioned (but was not quoted) in my email to Newsweek is that the real challenge for institutional blogs is for them to be interesting. I rather like this quote from Carl Zimmer that summarizes their problem:

I do not, for example, assume that a piece of research is actually important just because a press release says it is. Imagine a press release with the headline, “Minor study published that is really not all it claims to be.” Such things just don’t exist.