Blogs for the Boys

by Kieran Healy on October 28, 2003

Jacob Levy asks an interesting question about group blogs staffed by academics:

For purposes of academic conflict-of-interest norms, what sort of relationship do co-bloggers have to one another?

He wonders whether people who post on the same blog should do things like review one another’s papers or write tenure letters and so on. I have a mental picture of a rapidly branching tree of hypothetical cases that needs to be pruned near the base. Things like tenure letters seem like an easy case: you’re supposed to disclose your relationship to the person you’re evaluating anyway. (“Prof. Healy’s ill-informed pot-shots have been a constant irritant in my comments threads for years, despite my numerous attempts to ban him.”) You’d just need to get over the hump of embarrassment about admitting you know someone through a blog.

Reviewing articles is a bit tricker, partly because conventions vary across disciplines. Sociology and Politics aspire to be a science, so journals do double-blind reviews. Economics knows it is a science, so journals only do single-blind reviews, where the reviewer knows the author’s name. (The reviewer can then treat the author’s name as a piece of information about the paper, and economize accordingly by not checking the math if it’s someone famous and only reading the abstract, and perhaps checking the bibliography for one’s own name, if it’s someone unknown. Of course, homo economicus would free-ride on the review process in the first place. Economists are well-aware of this, which is why their journals have longer turnaround times.) I believe Law journals review articles mainly by weight.

Judgments about the appropriateness of reviewing a co-blogger’s work will be conditioned on these practices. People often review papers written by people they know, and perhaps are friends with, even in cases where reviews are double-blind. This seems inevitable. The reverse also happens, with people getting papers to review written by their enemies, intellectual or otherwise. Authors can sometimes pre-empt this by suggesting to the editors that Prof. X has a bee in her bonnet about their work. There’s no equivalent for the friendship problem, as authors will not say “Here is a list of my friends. Do not send the paper to them.” I doubt that there’s some additional mechanism that would allow you to free the reviewing process from the social networks it’s embedded in. Editors rely on these networks to find competent reviewers in the first place, and paper-writing is an inescapably social process incorporating presentation of one’s work to others, solicitation of comments and all the rest of it.

Formal ties to others (co-author, colleague, relation, spouse) will often rule someone out of consideration as a reviewer. The less formal the tie, the less weight it carries. (Though of course it may be precisely these ties that grease the wheels of people’s careers. So it goes.) Being a co-blogger is not quite the same as being a co-author, and it’s not quite the same as being in the same department. But it seems closer to either than simply having been on the same conference panel. It’s more like, say, having been at grad school together. So my feeling is that an editor might legitimately weigh it against you when deciding whether to send you a paper, but it ought not to count as seriously as co-authorship or being a colleague, and reviewers shouldn’t have to fess up to it as a matter of course. As always in such cases, you have to rely on the practical judgment of the participants and their ability to apply the standards of the field (editors who know what’s happening, authors and reviewers who had the right scruples instilled in grad school). This is why it’s whole subfields and disciplines, rather than individuals, that tend to go rotten.

{ 9 comments }

1

chs 10.28.03 at 5:02 am

Interesting…

2

Angry Bear 10.28.03 at 6:34 am

economics journals reveal the author’s name to the referee. Even so, due to the citations, you can frequently not help knowing whose paper you are refereeing. If not the citations, then you’ve seen the paper in a conference or seminar–I’m not sure there’s a good way around this, other than to have uninformed referees.
AB
[sorry if this was posted twice]

3

Kieran Healy 10.28.03 at 6:40 am

Yeah, that’s part of what I was saying when I wrote “I doubt that there’s some additional mechanism that would allow you to free the reviewing process from the social networks it’s embedded in. Editors rely on these networks to find competent reviewers in the first place”

4

dsquared 10.28.03 at 8:02 am

Presumably if there was a group blog of mathematicians, they’d address this problem by all having sexual relationships with one another, thus reducing the problem to one already solved.

5

Richard 10.28.03 at 9:26 am

There’s a fairly big assumption in that last post…

6

Harry 10.28.03 at 2:17 pm

Jacob suspects that most of the Timberites have never met each other — in fact I suspect that despite my general taciturn-ness I have met more of them than any other (Micah, Chris, and Jon — any advance on 3?). I think that co-blogging is an irrelevance — I’d feel much better about refereeing stuff by any co-blogger (including Chris, whom I know best) than by many other people with whom I have no formal connections, but whom I know better.

I think the ethics of refereeing stuff by people you attended grad school with are much more complicated. I say that as someone who didn’t go to a fancy grad school, so have very few classmates around in the profession. I’d be amazed if my stuff has ever been refereed by a classmate. It seems to me that having classmates referee your stuff is one of the biggest advanatages of going to a fancy grad school. (I’m not complaining, just observing).

BTW, Ethics, the best journal in my field, is very explicit in asking referees NOT to decline to referee a paper just on the grounds that they recognise the paper or know the author.

7

Neel Krishnaswami 10.28.03 at 11:41 pm

If conflict of interest worries you that much, you could always start advocating Robin Hanson-style “idea markets”. Presumably, if the sums involved are large enough, the lure of material gain will induce people to give new ideas a fair shake, even if they come from co-bloggers. :)

8

Tom T. 10.29.03 at 12:52 am

Setting aside any question of outright recusal, is there (or should there be) an expectation that a reviewer will disclose any personal connections to the reviewee?

9

Matt Weiner 10.29.03 at 5:12 pm

If I remember correctly from my time as a copy editor at a bio. journal: People would often ask that X, a rival in the field, not review their work. This wasn’t entirely because they thought “X hates my work,” but because they didn’t want X to find out what they were up to.

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