PepsiCo Buys Its Way Onto Science Blog Network As A Food Nutrition Expert

Update #2: On Thursday morning, July 8th, ScienceBlogs contributor PZ Myers posted that the founder and CEO of Seed Media (which owns the blog network) has announced that the PepsiCo sponsored blog has been removed–although as of this update (10:44 am EST July 8th) it’s still online.

Original post:
Yesterday, PepsiCo placed a full-page, semi-permanent advertorial on the ScienceBlogs network. Or actually, it created a micro-site within ScienceBlogs to provide compelling user-centric content that builds PepsiCo’s position as a thought leader in the field of nutrition. Or wait, no, it’s actually a blog, just like all the other science themed blogs on the network. Only the other blogs are written by paid contributors from various scientific fields, while this one was purchased by PepsiCo and will be staffed by a member of its “sustainability communications team.”

Update: Scienceblogs has posted a response and clarification today. (Thanks to reader speedwell, avatar of snark, for the heads up!)

Many of the regular bloggers on the network, as well as many of the readers, are upset. ScienceBlogs promises on the blog’s sidebar that “all editorial content on the blog is overseen” by its own editors, but it certainly doesn’t sound like the forthcoming material will be propaganda-free. In fact, based on ScienceBlogs’ editor Evan Lerner’s description, the promised content sounds exactly like what a PR-helmed corporate blog would push out to the public:

As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

In fact, “Food Frontiers” already exists on an official PepsiCo blog domain, and the editor there–he’s the one listed as a member of the company’s sustainability communications team–has identified himself as the editor on the new ScienceBlogs version.

One of ScienceBlogs’ contributors, an evolutionary biologist who goes by the name “GrrlScientist,” writes that she’s bothered by the deliberate blurring of editorial and advertising boundaries:

I and my colleagues were recruited by ScienceBlogs based on our track records of productivity, topic choices, traffic and whatever ephemeral talent that their corporate masters thought we possessed. Not one of us had to buy our way in. And despite the presence of advertising on this site, none of us is paid to write content that supports a particular corporate agenda.

[…]

I can only speak for myself, but as an unemployed scientist who’d love to continue my interrupted career path before I’m dead, the only thing of value that I have left is my integrity, but this surreptitious decision by the Seed overlords is casting a pall over all of us by selling the site’s integrity to the highest bidder.

Another ScienceBlog contributor, a physiologist who goes by Isis the Scientist, offers a more equivocal opinion on the new blog, pointing out that she’s worked for big pharma and has accepted money from big tobacco to fund a study. (The study did not turn out favorable for big tobacco.)

But Isis notes that at the moment, the difference between her work and what ScienceBlogs is doing involves transparency and a deliberate separation of church and state: she discloses her funding sources so that everyone is aware of any potential conflicts of interest. By comparison, ScienceBlogs hasn’t fully disclosed its arrangement with PepsiCo, and what it has disclosed doesn’t prove that there will be any clear division between editorial and advertising.

Isis writes, “Just because the potential for a conflict of interest exists doesn’t mean one must do dishonest science. …I hope that the ScienceBlogs overlords will apply a little more transparency to this situation, splaying the words ‘Advertisement’ all over the content.”

“Welcome to Food Frontiers” [ScienceBlogs]