Simply put, 2011 was not the easiest year for me, personally or professionally, for many reasons I won’t go into here. So it gave me a boost to learn in mid-December that one of my blog posts from 2011 was chosen for inclusion in the anthology known as Open Lab. I’ve had two posts accepted to Open Lab before (2009, 2010), but this year felt different because the anthology was picked up by Scientific American and will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Previously, it was self-published on Lulu.com by its creator, Bora Zivkovic, and whoever Bora chose to be that year’s editor.
You can see a list of the 50 posts and one poem that were chosen out of the 720 entries at Jennifer Ouellete’s blog, Cocktail Party Physics. Jennifer was the gracious
cat herder editor this year. The new title of the anthology is: The Best of Science Writing Online 2012. Normally this would be called OpenLab 2011, but with the new publisher and different editorial and publishing process the anthology will skip a year and come out late in 2012. As more than one person has noted, however, this doesn’t mean the chosen posts are THE best online science writing—that would be an impossibility to judge and curate—they are simply some of the best from the posts that were submitted. (To give credit where it’s due, that sentiment was first expressed by Ed Yong.) This brings up the obvious point: if you want your work to be considered for judging, you have to submit to OpenLab.
My single complaint about the transition to Scientific American from independent publishing is that SciAm inserted an indemnity clause into the publishing agreements they require the bloggers to sign in order to license reprinting of their work. What this means is that should anyone anywhere decide to sue over something that is published in the anthology, SciAm and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux are as resilient as greased teflon to the suit, which will smack the blogger instead. This made me pretty darn angry. Especially in light of the fact that the bloggers get zero payment for the use of their work (just the illustrious glory and bragging rights of being published with a byline, and a free copy of the book.) I asked the editor to inquire if they’d budge on the indemnity clause, but they would not. This is unfair. Basically, the publisher gets all the toys to play with, but if anyone gets hurt the liability rests solely with the indie blogger. Really? A more reasonable approach to the liability question would be for SciAm to offer slightly different language next year. Instead of insisting that the bloggers indemnify the publisher, they ought to have language that says that the publisher and blogger will share in responsibility for any reasonable claim made against the work. It’s ridiculous to force the entirety of the liability upon the blogger, who likely carries no liability insurance to protect against such suits. The idea that anyone anywhere could sue over my piece and I alone would be responsible for my legal defense and costs makes me nauseaous. It should have the same effect on all the other contributors too. Nevertheless, I held my nose and signed the agreement. (I figured my post was innocuous enough that no one would sue over it.) Which is exactly what the publishers were counting upon everyone doing.
Now that I’ve aired my complaint, let’s move on.
My chosen post, Saving Ethiopia’s Church Forests, was first published on the guest blog at PLoS. It covers a unique and happy accident of conservation in Ethiopia where Orthodox Christian churches percieve it as their religious duty to preserve existing forests surrounding their churches. In a land where deforestation is ripe, the church forests represent some of the last biodiversity gems. The article discusses their spiritual motivations for conserving the forests (which are thought of as metaphorical gardens of Eden), as well as the physical demands people of the churches make upon the forests—such as gathering firewood and using them as toilets.
The first paragraph of my original post drew a comparison between fundamentalist Christian attitudes toward nature in the States versus Christians in Ethiopia. While I had conceived of this comparison in the historical sense, I failed to qualify this idea in the lede. The result? The post recieved the stink eye (and bucketfuls of negative comments) from many Christians who took offense to my use of the word “fundamentalist,” and what they saw as my failure to acknowledge that green movements are penetrating some modern Christian faiths, especially those of with Evangelical leanings. While I concede the second point, and have ammended the lede for the anthology, I still retained the use of “fundamentalist” in the anthology. Why? Because I had failed to clearly communicate in my original post that I was drawing an analogy between historical Christian attitudes and Ethiopian Orthodox attitudes toward nature. Some people wrote to me, including an editor of a prominent Christian magazine, pointing out that I ought to have used the word “Evangelical” because “fundamentalist” is perceived by many Christians as pejorative. (In the comments, some people even assumed that I hated religion and insisted that I’d made the slight on purpose, an accusation that pains me.) Let me be clear that it was never my intention to insult Christians with this post, even though many followers took it this way. (On the flip side, if I took offense to every post that intentionally insulted people who value the environment—often unfairly framed as extremists with labels such as greenies, eco-crazies, eco-terrorists, tree-huggers, nature-wingnuts, and animal-worshippers—I’d never get off the internet.) I’m now well aware that many today prefer “Evangelical” to “fundamentalist,” but the problem is that I was not referencing today’s Evangelicals, I was referencing several hundred years of Christian faith traditions which interpreted literally the Bible passages of God granting man dominion over the earth and its beasts. The word fundamentalist is widely used to refer to those faiths that adhere to strict interpretations of their spiritual teachings. It is in this vein, and in an historical context, that I used the word. I hope this clears up some of the controversy and ill feelings by some people of faith toward my original post. The online comments turned into such a bash fest I decided it was not worth it to try and explain my thoughts there. Feathers were ruffled, teeth were gnashing, and it was obvious not much would settle them at the time.
Congrats to everyone else who will be published, and I can’t wait to see the finished product. Maybe as the Open Lab/The Best of Science Writing Online series gains traction and visibility, it will raise the bar for online science writers. Perhaps many of us will strive to improve our craft as the competition steepens for getting published in the series. Wouldn’t that be neat? Better writing and improved communication will benefit everyone, and it would make a richer and more engaging product in the end!