ScienceOnline, #scioSafe, and ways forward together.

This document grew out of the #scioSafe session at ScienceOnline Together 2014. It is an attempt to reflect the sentiments of a substantial portion of the ScienceOnline community, though we recognize and appreciate that this community is large and holds a diversity of viewpoints. We offer this document in the sincere belief that we share with the leadership of ScienceOnline a desire to make this organization and its endeavors going forward shining examples of the good that can come from powerful collaborations between motivated people.

What we are asking for:

1. More frequent and clearer communication from the ScienceOnline Board to the community.
Members of the community feel out of the loop on changes that the Board has planned but not fully implemented, on actions that the Board may be considering (or may have considered but rejected) and on the reasons that the Board has chosen to follow a particular course of action rather than the alternatives. Whenever possible, we would appreciate that communications from the Board include:

  • what was done
  • why it was done
  • alternatives that were considered and why they were rejected
  • explicit identification of instances where deliberative details cannot be shared due to legal, financial, or other considerations.

2. More transparent mechanisms for engaging with and responding to communication from the community to the Science Online Board.
Members of the ScienceOnline community who have made suggestions, shared concerns, or asked questions of leadership are frequently unsure whether what they have communicated has been heard and shared with the Board. We would appreciate, wherever possible, public acknowledgement of the feedback communicated to the Board, as well an indication of how (if at all) the Board plans to act on it.

3. An expanded ScienceOnline Board of Directors, including members from more diverse background.
We recognize that there are current plans to expand membership of the existing ScienceOnline Board of Directors. We encourage the organization to move efficiently on this expansion. We ask that the expertise of members of the Board and their responsibilities to the organization be clearly and publicly communicated. In addition, we ask that the selection criteria for Board members and timeline for member searches be made transparent. We suggest that one or more of these appointments be directed at the goal of improving representation of and communication with the larger ScienceOnline community.

4. A strengthened response team and more clarity on available official responses to reporting to support meaningful implementation of ScienceOnline conference Code of Conduct and Harassment Policy.
We applaud the Board of ScienceOnline for adopting a strong Harassment Policy and conference Code of Conduct. We urge the Board to take the necessary steps to ensure that these policies can be enforced to achieve welcoming, inclusive conferences. These steps might include hiring external professionals to serve as the response team or providing direct training of a community volunteer response team by external professionals. In addition, we ask the Board to seek guidance from external professionals to create a mechanism for anonymous reporting of incidents. As well, in light of the large barrier that exists to people speaking up about conduct that makes them uncomfortable, we request that the Board clarify the likely range of responses to conference-goer reports. We recognize that some of these steps will have costs associated with them, but we are willing to help the Board meet those costs.

5. A clarification of Bora Zivkovic’s relationship to the ScienceOnline organization and its conferences, events, and initiatives going forward.
We appreciate the swiftness with which Bora Zivkovic was removed from leadership of the ScienceOnline organization in the wake of revelations that he harassed multiple women, including women within the ScienceOnline community. However, the last official statement from the ScienceOnline organization specified that he would not be attending any ScienceOnline events in 2014. Members of the community would like to know what happens after 2014. We ask the Board to seriously consider making the separation between Zivkovic and the ScienceOnline organization, its conferences, events, and initiatives permanent.

6. Serious exploration of transition to a membership organization.
We recognize that ScienceOnline is currently incorporated as an educational non-profit rather than a membership organization. This means that at present, individual participants in ScienceOnline events are essentially customers. Active segments of the community banding together to provide suggestions or feedback, to volunteer their efforts or raise money for the organization, function more or less as lobbying groups, whose only recourse if their feedback is not welcome or seriously engaged is to vote with their wallets and their feet. While this relationship flows logically from the current organizational structure of ScienceOnline, it leaves members of the community in a suboptimal relationship with the organization and its leadership. Recognizing that reorganizing ScienceOnline would require time and resources to navigate bureaucratic hurdles, we nonetheless urge the Board to consider the benefits to both members and the organization that may flow from actively engaging the community in the ongoing business, large and small, of ScienceOnline.

7. An entirely elected leadership for the ScienceOnline organization.
In the event of a successful transition from its current organizational structure to a membership organization, we hope that the Board of Directors will become a democratically elected body, representative of and accountable to the interests and needs of a diverse and vibrant ScienceOnline community.

Background for the #scioSafe session:

A significant number of attendees of ScienceOnline Together 2014 came to the #scioSafe session at 12:00 noon on Saturday March 1, 2014, in the lobby of the McKimmon Center. (Those who were taking a headcount put the attendance at something above 65.)

This was not a session in the official conference program, and so was announced in a tweet just two hours before the session was to start. Because the word was spread primarily through Twitter, a number of people didn’t know the session was happening until it was underway or until after it had wrapped up. Also, there were six other officially scheduled sessions going on concurrently (at least two of which I had wanted to attend). So, since humans can only be in one place at a time and are always making the best choices they can with the information they have, we heard the voices of the people who came.

It’s worth noting that a number of us who felt the need for a session like this — the session some of us thought “Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally” was going to be — had been asking Anton Zuiker and Karyn Traphagen to put something official on the schedule before the end of the conference. Since an official session was not scheduled, we put one together in the spirit of ScienceOnline’s unconference style.

Indeed, once this session was organized, ScienceOnline leadership made themselves available to engage with those convened and their concerns. Executive Director Karyn Traphagen spoke to us right before session began, indicating that she was busy attending to logistical details but would be available to speak to anyone who wanted to during the lunch session. Board members Scott Rosenberg and Anton Zuiker asked if they could join us in the session but were asked if they could let us convene without them, the better to be candid about our experiences and hopes going forward.

There was agreement within the session that participants would respect requests not to transmit particular contributions to the session via social media or other means.

Summary of what was expressed in the #scioSafe session:

Many people expressed their hurt with how the leadership of the ScienceOnline organization had dealt with their needs and concerns, especially around issues of harassment and pressures not to discuss it, to get over it, to forgive on someone else’s timeline.

Some expressed concern that there was never a clear official acknowledgment at the conference from the leadership of the harm done to members of the community by harassment from one of the founders of ScienceOnline, and moreover there was never a clear official acknowledgment at the conference from the leadership of the harm done to members of the community by the minimization of that harassment, casting those upset by it as “bitter,” by another founder of ScienceOnline still in a leadership position. The impact of Anton Zuiker’s post of January 2014 was deep, with many in attendance expressing that they were not sure if they would ever be able to trust his judgment again.

The lack of official acknowledgment of particular events, more than one person shared, conveyed a message that we should not use the ScienceOnline conference spaces to name and discuss problems like harassment, nor to process our responses together as a community. Some pointed to the “Boundaries, Behavior, and Being an Ally” session as one where they hoped to find such a space but were thwarted by the way the session was moderated. Others mentioned clear (and unfriendly) signals from members of ScienceOnline leadership that continuing to discuss these issues, whether face to face or via social media, was inappropriate, a refusal to let go of things.

In short, people perceived a lack of official transparency from the board of ScienceOnline, both about specific events and general stance towards harassment and responses to it, that meant many of us had to keep having a conversation about the conversation we were not having (or were getting the message that we were not supposed to be having). Multiple people in attendance expressed that they want to be able to move on from this conversation to focus on the other topics on the program but that they felt they could not until this issue of climate had been addressed. The official silence from leadership paired with the unofficial pressure from certain members of ScienceOnline leadership to keep quiet or get over it made the ScienceOnline Together 2014 conference feel unsafe.

It’s worth noting that new attendees at the session also identified the official silence on specific events as alienating, describing their feelings of being out of the loop and wondering if they were really a part of the community.

A number of the conference volunteers on the response team, tasked with helping conference-goers with incidents of harassment or violations of the conference Code of Conduct, shared their concerns that they may not have been given the training, tools, and especially support they needed to fulfill their roles. In particular, they felt concerned about their ability to effectively respond to harassment when, ultimately, response to their reports would be left to management. The lack of clear (and enforceable) consequences for violations of these policies, coupled with tenuous trust for ScienceOnline leadership, meant many in attendance had little confidence that the harassment policy or Code of Conduct would do much.

A question was raised about what mechanisms, if any, were in place in the event that those in leadership positions violated either of these policies. Given the current reporting structure, those present wondered how members of the ScienceOnline board, for example, would (or could) be held accountable for engaging in a harassing or disrespectful manner with a conference-goer. People expressed that it was hard, in the current climate, to have faith that the proper channels would work.

The conversation shifted to the broader question of the relationship between the community and the ScienceOnline organization and its leadership. Some present wanted more clarity about what the leadership’s goals are for the organization, and about where the community fit into those goals. There was a recognition within the assembled group that Science Online’s status as an educational non-profit puts constraints on its activities and its priorities, but there was also a desire for a clearer explanation of what that meant as far as the involvement of members of the community and accountability to their interests and needs.

Some suggested that a significantly bigger board (of 10-15 members) could help ensure better representation of the diverse interests of the community. Others suggested that there should be at least one community-appointed member of the board (although the group recognized that the logistics of this could be complicated). Still others voiced the opinion that reincorporating as a membership organization would be a better way to ensure that the organization and the community were accountable to each other.

Despite these differing views, there was wide agreement that the community would benefit from a clear statement of how the leadership of ScienceOnline sees the community in the mission of the organization, and a clear statement of how, if at all, leadership of ScienceOnline sees itself and the organization as accountable to the community and its needs.

Signed by:

Brian Abraham

Eva Amsen

Michele Banks

Aatish Bhatia

Deborah Blum

Bethany Brookshire

Raychelle Burks

Katy Chalmers

Kate Clancy

Russ Creech

Jen Davison

Lali DeRosier

David Dobbs

Drug Monkey

John Dupuis

Peter Edmonds

Nicholas Evans

Emily Finke

Matthew Francis

Suzanne E. Franks

Simon Frantz

Sonia Furtado Neves

Greg Gbur

Jacquelyn Gill

Brian Glanz

Dwayne Godwin

Stephen Granade

David Grinspoon

Marga Gual Soler

Nicole Gugliucci

Tara Haelle

Samuel Hansen

Kelly Hills

Frances Hocutt

Karen James

Anne Jefferson

Eric Michael Johnson

Madhusudan Katti

Greg Laden

Pascale Lane

Tom Levenson

Ben Lillie

Rachael Ludwick

David Manly

Erik Martin

Maryn McKenna

Joseph Meany

Elizabeth Moon

PZ Myers

Brent Neal

Liz Neeley

Kelly Oakes

Jeffrey Perkel


Erin Podolak

Sandra Porter

Elizabeth Preston

Catherine Qualtrough

Kathleen Raven

Eve Rickert

Alberto Roca, Executive Director, DiverseScholar

Adrienne Roehrich

Lauren Rugani

Matt Russell

Travis Saunders

Marie-Claire Shanahan

Matt Shipman

Justin Starr

Janet D. Stemwedel

Melanie Tannenbaum

Andrew David Thaler

John Timmer

Holly Tucker

Brandi VanAlphen

Hannah Waters

Mindy Weisberger

Allie Wilkinson

Emily Willingham

Natalie Willoughby

Josh Witten

Ed Yong

David Zaslavsky

If you would like to add your name to the list of signatories, please leave a comment to let us know.

Posted in Communication, Conferences.


  1. Co-signed. The steps requested are not only reasonable  – but necessary to re-establish and retain the good faith of many who have given much to the conference and seen its spirit and principles violated over the past 6 months or so.

  2. I wasn’t at #scioSafe nor was I involved in the drafting of this post, so I don’t know if it’s appropriate for me to be added as a co-signer, but I definitely support the changes you’re proposing.

  3. Co-signed. Also, worth noting: Janet did a nice job of highlighting that this is not some sort of blanket list of demands from disgruntled kvetchers. Rather, it’s a thoughtful list of things that longstanding ScienceOnline constituents think may improve the organization and its services in both the short term and the long term. I hope it’s taken in that spirit.

  4. Co-signed. I am impressed by the thought, depth, and feeling behind this statement, and the courteous dispassion with which it is expressed. I applaud and support your efforts.

  5. Please add my name. The unofficial structure is what has cautioned my involvement. I do hope the future membership criteria doesn’t discriminate against those outside academia affiliation. This is a great start, nontheless.

  6. This conversation is important in the lifetime of any organization, and shouldn’t be considered demonization. I feel that sustainable organizations are able to fearlessly examine themselves – oversight, meaningful external review and greater transparency are just part of growing. So, endorse!

  7. Please add my name as well. Thanks for putting this together and for summarizing the session for those who missed it.

  8. Co-signing here. Thanks to all the people who worked on this for their hard work.

    I think David Wescott, a commenter on his post, and Brandi VanAlphen make important points I’d like to underscore. First, no, we don’t need and I think we don’t want Science Online to be a membership only group IF that means that the incredible, vibrant, valuable, and amazing diversity that has characterized this meeting in the past is in any way threatened. It is hard to imagine how membership criteria would not threaten that diversity, but I’m not sure that is inevitable. For each academic or professional area represented here there are membership organizations already. This conference represents a self generated confluence of multiple communities and to work over time probably needs to retain the potential for dynamic change. If there was membership where people self identified as members, then it is hard to see how that is different from no membership, and that may be little different than simply having paid conference participation. And, if membership criteria are meant to ultimately be exclusionary (see David’s comments about science deniers, etc.) then how do you get appropriately exclusionary criteria that don’t dampen dynamic change over time? So I’m not sure that is a good idea or necessary.

    I was also concerned, as was David, with item 5. I’m not sure how to interpret that, and I agree with David’s statement about legalities. My signing on to this is done without any implied or stated support for singling out any individual for any sort of collective action for the simple, minimal reason that I’m not interested in being named in a law suit as party to action that affects someone’s career or livelihood.

    I was not at scio 2014, but I understand there was concern that “The Bora Thing” was not being addressed in a sufficiently explicit manner. This seems to have contributed to the departure of Anton, who seems to be thought of as one of the reasons for that (though the situation is not entirely clear). So we have a situation where people wanted a session explicitly designated where a pubic (very public given twitter) discussion of the transgressions of a specific named individual would be the topic, and possibly individuals seen as not facilitating that have been affected. In other words, it was probably smart to not have a “let’s harp about Bora” session. David was a bit circumspect in his concern over the legal issues here. I think it is very serious. A document that is meant to be the first step in an eventual formal restructuring of an organization representing several overlapping groups and professions should not be an indictment of an individual. That was not well thought out.

    Finally, if I was a member of the initial group that compiled this document, I would exempt myself from consideration on the board at least for the first term or two of board membership. I know this is not some sort of take-over, but if all the existing (prior) board members and organizers of Science On Line went away and all the new organizers of Science Online were the designers of the new constitution, as it were, that is exactly what it would look like. No need to start off a refreshed and hopeful project under the pall of what could be perceived a hostile takeover (which clearly it is not, but perceptions matter).

    Finally, there is one other problem with Science Online that I don’t think has been discussed. I’m not sure if this can be fixed but I would like to see it addressed at some point. Because of the high demand for participation and the way the conference has been organized, it is often the case that people who want to participate don’t know whether or not they will be able to until fairly late in the process. Also, people who may get funding from their academic department or company if they are “presenting” (a category into which one may need to shoehorn a particular activity) may only be able to go on the basis of the nature of their participation, again, something that in the past was uncertain and seemingly arbitrary (or random). I’ve been a member of and regular conference participant in many different organizations and I’ve never seen this problem elsewhere. It would be nice if we could fix that. Unfortunately, I have no suggestions in part because I’m not entirely sure why or how this problem emerges.

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  10. Co-signed. Thank you for the clarity and reasoning of this document. I am a member of other organizations struggling with some of the same issues, and this is perhaps the best request for change I have seen from any of them.

  11. Just catching up, as I was one of the people who didn’t realise this session was happening until I saw the tweets while sitting in the Community session. (Oh, irony.)

    Please add my name to the signatories list as well. I’ve long thought Science Online should have a membership system and an elected board, even before the euphemistic “recent events”.

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  13. I was unaware that the ScienceOnline Board response to the #ScioSafe letter was not linked here, so perhaps some people have not seen it. The response tried, as best we could, to explain some of the situations, reasons for decisions, and background for the organizational structure. I hope that it helps. I know there will still be questions, but it is a start in understanding. Thank you.

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