Scienceblogs adds PepsiCo-sponsored blog, sparks debate

By Grant Jacobs 07/07/2010

Hard on the heels of adding institutional blogs Scienceblogs now has Food Frontiers, a blog sponsored by PepsiCo, sparking discussion and concern.

They’re not entirely happy discussions either:

Janet D. Stemwedel’s Welcome to inescapable conflict of interest is a good starting point. As usual she is excellent on moral issues and points out that it seems that it is their R&D scientists that will be blogging, rather than the PR staff, but also that they are tied to their sponsor and so have a conflict of interest (COI).

PalMD chimes in with Rethinking blog networks and ethics, worrying particularly about possible effects of being associated with PepsiCo through sharing the same platform. He also wonders if this impacts on their indexing in Google News. (Our blogs are also indexed on Google News.)

GrrlScientist titled her post more bluntly*: Pepsi Ethics. Leaving aside her objections about linking a nutrition blog and PepsiCo, she points to a distinction between research institute blogs and corporations (they have products to sell).

Mark Chu-Carroll (aka Mark-CC) joins in with Seed, Conflicts of Interest, and Sleaze

This is rapidly spreading elsewhere, as you might expect. Many are in ’I’ll give it a chance, but I’ll be watching very closely’ mode. In general, the bloggers seem at best wary and at worse disgusted.

I suspect that the owner of Scienceblogs, Seed Media Group, is not going to be able to easily play this one down. (It has to be noted that they are a business, too.)

My initial thoughts are that they’re (in danger of) breaking the independence of content that is a key to blogs in general, and science blogs in particular.

Blogs tied tightly to corporations belong on corporate websites, in my opinion, where the conflict is inherent and expected.

At least they did disclose the COI in their opening post, in the opening sentence, so it’s not as if they are hiding anything:

On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I’d like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, a new project presented by PepsiCo.

I have no objections to food science blogs – we have Amanda Johnson’s Food Stuff – but care needs to be taken with conflicts of interest.

A lot will come down the content they offer. Much more than for the institutional blogs, readers and fellow sciblings will be wary of anything that looks like PR material.

We all have COIs to varying extents.

For the bloggers in Food Frontiers – as a first impression – it seems hard to see how their posts will not have a COI, unless they were to write off-topic.

Advertising on scienceblogs isn’t new, but there is a concern the introduction of a corporate-sponsored blog has crossed a line. At least advertising is (more-or-less) independent of the content; this new move is much closer to the content.

In principle, they could place blogs with affiliations that imply an inherent COI in a separate section. While this might help make the distinction clearer it could create a permanent rift, both virtual and real.

As a final remark, it does make me think (not for the first time) that those running blog collectives are wise to let their bloggers know their plans in advance rather than foist things on them, with communication to answer any question about the details ahead of time.

It seems clear to me that none of the bloggers were aware that this was to take place. I can’t help thinking a more informed introduction might have helped.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

[Edited to correct a typo.]

* Changed to reflect GrrScientist’s new title for the post.

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