David Kristofferson kristoff at
Wed Mar 2 09:50:59 EST 1994

In article <1994Feb24.125023.27511 at>,
S.A. Modena maildrop <maildrop at> wrote:
>During the latter part of November and again in early February Lara
>Wiggert, a graduate assistant working at the National Agricultural
>Library, posted several messages to this discussion group responding to
>messages regarding the safety and efficacy of recombinant bovine
>somatotropin (bST/bGH).  The content of these postings was inappropriate
>to be coming from an institution whose purpose is to disseminate
>information in an impartial and unprejudiced manner.  

Not being a frequent reader of this group I will have to investigate
this further before commenting on this particular case.  I also
caution others to avoid knee-jerk reactions.

This group was created by the readership a year or so ago to assist
women in their research careers.  As such it was a sociological
departure from the purpose of the rest of the BIOSCI/bionet groups and
was bothersome to some readers.  I found it disturbing initially that
a few male readers tried their best to shut the group down by
promoting controversy here through the posting of inflammatory
comments at that time.  As usually happens on the network, however,
most people learned to ignore them.

The BIOSCI/bionet newsgroups are for the use of researchers in biology
for professional purposes.  While unmoderated newsgroups are open
discussion forums, they are not without rules.  One of the most
obvious and long-standing is that discussions must conform to the the
charter of the group.  As manager of these groups, I will take action
on cases of repeated abuse that are brought to my attention at
biosci-help at (more on this below).

>The distribution of information by electronic means remains in its
>infancy, and standards for the ethical use of this medium are still
>developing.  It holds great promise to facilitate the exchange of ideas
>and information. However, this powerful medium can be used improperly to
>disseminate unsupported claims to a global audience.  In some respects the
>medium functions as an immediate global newspaper, and as such the
>"stories" that it contains need to be as accurate and truthful as
>possible. By neglecting this responsibility, we run the risk of
>diminishing the role that electronic communication will have in the
>future.  We regret that this incident occurred and have taken actions to
>prevent future lapses in objectivity and professionalism. 

This analogy with a global newspaper does not hold.  All contents of a
newspaper go through an editorial process.  Even the "Letters to the
Editor" section in newspapers is reviewed.  Unmoderated newsgroups are
not edited.  Everyone who uses the network realizes this and treats
inflammatory postings accordingly.  All legal precedents to date hold
that the legal responsibility for postings lies with the person who
posts the article, and they are responsible in cases of libel.  If
bionet.women-in-bio was a moderated group and the postings in question
were approved by a moderator, then the analogy made above might have
some validity.  Unmoderated groups are "self-regulating" in the sense
that, if a group degenerates into nothing but dribble, people stop
reading it.  BIOSCI/bionet strives to maintain a higher standard than
the rest of USENET through a more formal management structure than in
most other USENET hierarchies, but the increasing number of posts
makes that increasingly difficult in light of staff limitations.

*** I CAUTION READERS*** that libel laws *do* apply to anything that
you decide to post, so those who feel that they can say anything with
impunity on the newsgroups are seriously deluding themselves.

The volume on BIOSCI/bionet has grown to the point where I personally
can no longer read and monitor every flame war on the net (nor should
I have to - each newsgroup has a discussion leader), but I will take
action on cases of improper use that are called to my attention (mail
to biosci-help at

Finally, it is sad that this kind of rare incident is what attracts
attention and what people tend to remember about the network.  The
fact that we are sending out thousands of messages daily to scientists
who are using them for constructive research purposes never seems to
be worthy of note; instead one person making unsubstantiated claims
can make themselves "newsworthy" and jeopardize the use of the network
for others.

When one complains about the ethics of USENET, we should all remember
that what constitutes news in the regular press is not always
sweet-smelling 8-).  In theory, journalism is supposed to be balanced
in the, by implication, more ethical traditional media; in practice,
it often focuses on the sensational to sell newspapers.  At least on
the network the accused has equal access to reply immediately in their
own words.  This is a tremendously valuable freedom which should not
be jeopardized.


				Dave Kristofferson
				BIOSCI/bionet Manager

				biosci-help at

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