Does advertising have a place in open notebook science?

The most popular sites across the internet make most (all?) of their money from advertising. This definitely holds true for science websites as well. Scientific publications like Cell, Nature, and Science help alleviate publication costs through advertising and their sites are no different. Why can’t open notebooks do the same? What scientist wouldn’t love to be able to be self funded through advertising?

Of course we’d have to make an assumption or two first. Let’s assume an open notebook could generate enough traffic to support advertising. Then let’s assume there are enough clicks per day to generate some ad revenue. Of course there are many different kinds of advertising support (banner ads, sponsered advertising, etc) but ultimately ad revenue is generated because of traffic. Websites with no traffic don’t make money and no one wants to advertise on a site no one will visit.

If an open notebook can support any kind of advertising, then should an open notebook be allowed to post ads? I asked myself, Koch (my advisor), and Alan Marnett (BenchFly CEO and great friend) these questions, and of course by the nature of the title of this post I’m asking anyone who reads this too.

All of us came up with basically the same response, “Yes.” But we all agreed that there are some ethics there that has not been approached yet (after all open notebook science is very new and only so many people are doing it). These ethics make the situation very interesting and could be a dissertation all by itself, just not mine (LOL!).

I’ve been blogging for a few years now and about a year ago I launched Google Adsense on my personal blog. The ads on that site are not selected by me, but by Google, and are selected based on how well they match my content (lots of ads for Groupon Albuquerque) and also probably based on user data as well (what’s in your cookies and cache). If I launched something similar on this site, the ads would be all subject to Google’s discretion while I would have basic editing rights (no porno ads). With that regards I don’t think there would be many problems ethically speaking.

Now sponsored advertising is a bit trickier and can blur the ethics. Alan mentioned that sponsorship can come in several varieties (he pointed out guest blog posts and product reviews as some options). If a notebook goes this route, the most obvious issue would be how would visitors know that results and data aren’t skewed by the sponsorship? For example how would anyone know that a company didn’t pay you to publish that you achieved certain positive results? Obviously they don’t, but the nature of open notebook science fundamentally is transparency in results. So if you aren’t publishing your data regularly you aren’t really doing open notebook science (there are degrees of this which I’ll discuss another time).

The key Alan mentioned, and that I thought about, was that the advertising would have to be transparent. In his words:

You have to let your audience know what they’re getting – that way, if they have a problem with it, they can make the choice either to come back or not.  But if you mislead people, it never ends well when the truth comes out. [sic]

And I completely agree with him. Especially with regards to open notebook science. When you are publishing data openly you need to make sure your data is clean otherwise you will develop a negative reputation quickly. So advertising should be no different. If you aren’t transparent about what exactly is being funded by advertising your reputation as a scientist could be in jeopardy.

There is another aspect of advertising that should be taken into consideration: does advertising conflict with grants and could it count as profiting? While I have never written a major grant proposal and have not read any guidelines related to grant submission, I could see potential funding sources having an issue with advertising in research. So this question is something to think very deeply about.

I personally feel like advertising is more like a source of funding. The money wouldn’t go into my pocket, but would go to fund the notebook (server fees, cloud services, overhead, etc) or even to fund my research. Once again transparency is key here. I think other scientists wouldn’t have much of a problem if I fully disclosed what the money was being used for (itemized budget that is stored on Google Docs, perhaps). Perhaps sponsoring companies would also be more comfortable with this approach too (not to mention more giving) if there was budgetary disclosure.

With open science and open notebook science in particular being such a new endeavor for the scientific community, there are a lot of unbreached ethical concerns here. I won’t even pretend to have discussed them in full here as I’m sure there are even more topics that I haven’t even thought of. I know being from a young startup lab that the ability to advertise and generate even meager funds (like $100 a year) would be invaluable to my research, but I’m also aware of the ethical concerns that this could produce. I love open notebook science too much to destroy the practice before it gets off the ground, which is why I’m opening this topic up for debate. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below (open to everyone) and head over to BenchFly to participate in a poll regarding this very topic.

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  • Alan

    Thanks for bringing this issue to my attention!  It’s a very interesting consequence of science moving online and has a ton of potential, assuming the ethical considerations can be properly addressed.

    • Anthony Salvagno

      I’m glad we could collaborate on the issue! Like you said, it’s very interesting and eventually will need to be discussed. Open science is very new and there is a lot of uncharted territory and this topic is just a small section of what is yet to come!

  • Bill Hooker

    Be very very careful.  The businesses who give you advertising dollars want a return, and they will not hesitate to fuck you over to get it.  On top of that, it’s not overt influence that you have to worry about — it’s influence that you’re not even aware of yourself, and it’s the APPEARANCE of influence.  An ONS lab will have a competitive edge only so long as it remains part of the community — a community which is deeply (and rightly) skeptical about advertising.

    • Anthony Salvagno

      Thanks for your thoughts Bill!

      What about simple banner ads where you have next to no interaction with any of the companies that you are advertising for? As long as you can maintain what can and can’t be shown on your site, do you foresee any problems there?

      • Bill Hooker

        Way to find the grey area, Anthony!  If you retained veto over offensive stuff (Republican party ads, etc) and otherwise did not even know what was going to show up (because you only deal with a middle man like Google, who recruits advertisers into a pool), then I think you could reasonably claim freedom from undue influence.  The counter-argument (and you would hear it, very soon after the first ads showed up — “you sold out, here’s why”) is that the pool of advertisers targeting consumers via keywords in your content is so small that it soon becomes clear whose toast you need to butter (Roche, Fisher, Invitrogen, etc).  As others have pointed out, even though the counter is rather weak, I doubt that the advertising would bring in enough money to make it worthwhile defending yourself against such perceptions.  

        • Anthony Salvagno

          Oh I’m right there with you on the “you sold out” bandwagon. I mentioned in another reply that I would maintain no ads for the foreseeable future (post graduation), but that I just wanted to bring up this topic in general. You do bring up an excellent point that I couldn’t have even considered. While Google Adsense is very easy to implement, the hassle may be from others waiving a red flag. With all that controversy who has time for science at that point?!

        • Anthony Salvagno

          Also your mention of inviting scientific companies to advertise made me think: do those companies even advertise on Google? The quick answer is no. I searched science, fisher, roche, nature, etc and there were no advertisements associated with any of those searches. I then searched for stuff I hoped would generate ads (toys, basketball wives, etc) and those did generate ads. So unless someone went to the companies asking for ad support then there is a very low chance of having real relevant ads on a site. Of course I only spent 5 minutes total doing these searches so take the results at face value.

          • Bill Hooker

            I get quite a few ads on my work account (Gmail business) that are clearly targeting words in my emails.  Clinical research companies, antibody suppliers, etc etc.  I think you get ads connected to words like “clinical”, “antibody”, “microplate”, etc etc rather than the names of companies.

          • Anthony Salvagno

            I think my Google is broken, lol. I wasn’t specifically trying to search for things that were companies, I tried general terms related to sciencey words but my creativity is a little stifled today. Hence the search term “science”, hahaha!

  • Pawel Szczesny

    Please don’t. As many other scientists you will realize sooner or later that earning $9 a year isn’t worth annoying some of your visitors with ads (BTW, it’s Goodle Adsense, not Adwords – Adwords is the program for advertisers, Adsense is a program for content creators), while others have enough knowledge to install AdBlock. Forget about unobtrusive ads – an ad needs to be either confusing or very visible to attract clicks, otherwise it doesn’t earn. Choice of advertisers is small in your topic, therefore sooner or later you we’ll be showing ads for Google or blank space, for the lack of ads to present. And so on, and so forth. 

    During the time you would spend checking the Adsense stats for the next year and carefully discussing ethical and grant issues related to advertising, consider writing a book (ebook) from your protocols, creating fancy scientific pictures and sell them via microstock sites (my own blog post from 2 years ago: ), or rewriting your journal club discussions in a form of short essay for a $0.99. You’ll earn significantly more.Don’t spend your time on advertising – it’s not worth your time.

    • Anthony Salvagno

      Hey Pawel, thanks for the error correction!

      To be clear, I have no intention of running advertisements here in this space for the foreseeable future. I had a discussion with my adviser asking about the idea and we discussed some ethics and then I spoke with Alan about it as well to get a different perspective. But with that said, as I said with JC Bradley, there isn’t much hassle involved with running Adsense on a site. But your point about possible lack of ads is very interesting.

      And you are very right about ads needing to be confusing or very visible to attract clicks. I read a couple of studies that showed that visitors filter out advertisements visually when looking at a website, unless the ad is disguised as site content (conversely if the site content looks like an ad that gets filtered out as well!).

      • Pawel Szczesny

        I’ve experienced both sides of Google’s advertising program (as an advertiser and as a content creator – pretty unusual for a scientist, I know). When you run a campaign as an advertiser, you usually don’t run it for infinite amount of time with infinite budget, but rather in bursts evaluating performance of ads almost of the fly. If your site doesn’t perform very well from an advertiser point of view, it will get blacklisted for his/her ads. At least, that’s what I did as an advertiser ;).

        BTW, if you disguise an ad as site content too well, you will get banned by Google. It’s a tough business :). 

        I don’t have experience with other programs, like the ones Steve mentioned in his comment. I just wanted to point out that running Adsense on hardcore-science related pages is very often next to pointless, no matter how little-hassle it appears in practice. Good luck with other options. 

  • JC Bradley

    The closest we have come to “advertising” is putting up banners of our sponsors (for contest awards mainly):

    I don’t think this has created a conflict of interest.  My concern about putting ads on a lab notebook is that it wouldn’t generate enough traffic to be worth the hassle.

    • Anthony Salvagno

      Are the ads click generated revenue or just to display the sponsors? I agree about the amount of traffic issue. Google AdSense is really easy to install so there isn’t much hassle but any revenue generated would take a long time unless you were the hottest lab in the country. Maybe negative side effect would be that labs would perform experiments that are more style than substance just to generate traffic.

  • Steve Koch

    Great thoughts and advice everyone.  Anthony, great post and good job collaborating with Alan.  I agree that treading lightly for foreseeable future is best route and that advertising profits seem limited.  A related idea would be to use the AddGene award (which is unrestricted), to fund the site.  Then you could put a “thank you to Addgene” link on the site (you’d want to check with them first).  This money was given as an award for our lab sharing resources, so it would make sense and I wouldn’t see a conflict of interest.  It wouldn’t generate new money, but it would perhaps look nice for Addgene.  If the funding we have (start-up, Addgene, DTRA) doesn’t restrict it (and I don’t think any of them do), I think it’s perfectly fine to use those funds to make the notebook more stable, more archived, etc.  It’s definitely research costs.  And if we do so, then I would feel fine putting a “thank you” button on the site.  In fact, even though we aren’t using money for the notebook costs currently (thanks Ant for personal donation!), we could still put funding thank yous on the site, I think that’s very appropriate.  What do others think?  I don’t see any quid pro quo problem with that, do others?

    • Anthony Salvagno

      Those are all excellent ideas. I do like the idea of banners that support sponsors (like JCB mentioned he does on his wiki). I’ll contact Addgene to ask if they have any problems with it and ask if there is anything I can’t use their money for. Put it on the to-do…

    • Bill Hooker

      I don’t see a problem with acknowledgements for separate support.  (I’d be leery of support that *required* a banner/similar, since that’s just a cheap front for advertising.)  

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