Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Anonymity and Academia

Recently a debate has been occurring over the proper role of anonymity in academic blogging. While I don't want to spend a lot of time recounting the course of this debate,* I will point you to Wicked Anomie's interesting remarks on the subject. She provides a number of links to the various arguments for and against anonymity, and is thus a good starting point. A number of points have been made so far in this discussion but the primary attractors seem to be some combination of "anonymity allows you to be irresponsible" and "anonymity protects those who are relatively low in the disciplinary hierarchy." The latter of these is suggested fairly clearly by Wicked Anomie (see the link above) while the former is addressed, if only implicitly, in a post by the interesting Plain(s)feminist.**

This debate is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon for the simple reason that both sides are correct. Anonymity does protect those of us who are low on the totem pole- particularly since the job market is as competetive as it is. It has been said to me that any small detail can potentially kill your chances at a particular department. As such, the act of blogging, even if you restrict your blogging to stale, well-trod academic topics, is likely to be a problem. If you propose creative, untried ideas, you may be looked down upon because you don't accept some senior professor's pet theory and if you stick to the tried-and-true you run the risk of being viewed as uncreative and dull. Nothing like a lose-lose situation to make us all feel excited. At the same time, anonymity can allow the anonymous to engage in poor behavior. I think that I have been guilty of this previously,*** though as I have matured more as a scholar and a blogger I like to think that this tendency has decreased. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether or not I have been successful. Despite these indiscretions, however, I have always prided myself on two countervailing virtues: that I do not in any way restrict comments, so people who disagree with me are quite free to say so publicly right there alongside my post, and that I have a standing offer to post rebuttals from those I have criticized. Does that excuse poor behavior on my part? Nah, not really, but at least I'm not being as abusive with my anonymity as I could be.

In any case, I don't see the debate as likely to be resolved based on the existing arguments, and so I have no interest in really discussing them. Instead, I want to simply make an observation: as scholars in sociology we should not be as uncomfortable with anonymity as we seem to be. Our dominant form of peer review is, after all, double-blind, meaning that authors don't know who their reviewers are and reviewers don't know who the authors are. This has been explained to me as a way to prevent personal conflicts from tainting the review process- if you don't know that the really cool paper you're reviewing was written by someone you hate, you can't be unfair to them. I think this is a valid argument, but I also think that there's a second purpose implicit in the system: to thwart the operation of status characteristics.

Research in the status characteristics area has provided substantial empirical support for the idea that possessing a valued characteristic (e.g. maleness, heterosexuality, whiteness, etc.) can bias others. Specifically, those who are viewed as having higher status are expected to be more useful in collective tasks, are given more opportunities to contribute, and are rated more favorably when they do so. So, for many people, the mere knowledge that a person is male, white, and heterosexual is sufficient to convince them that said individual will be more productive in a group. Is this necessarily true? Nah. Sometimes it is, but the effects of status characteristics often extend beyond one limited domain.**** So why is this relevant for peer review? Well, think about it: if you receive a paper from a professor at Berkeley and a paper from a grad student at Southeastern Louisiana Agricultural Community College, which one are you likely to be more optimistic about? Right- the Berkeley faculty member. Now, next question, is it necessarily the case that the grad student can't possibly have good ideas or a good study? Of course not. The reality is that his or her project may well be of higher quality than the faculty member's. By using blind peer review, we allow for the possibility that knowing about the status characteristics of our authors may influence our rating of their work.

Now don't get me wrong: my strong suspicion is that the Berkeley faculty member above is much more likely to produce good work, but this is a statement of probability not certainty. The point is that by trying to defeat the influence of status characteristics we at least leave open the possibility of recognizing, and appreciating, work from a low status individual at a low status institution. Anonymity in this case may help us to improve the quality of the ideas circulating in the discipline as a whole. At the same time, the system is vulnerable to abuse and we have all had the experience of receiving a review that is so startlingly incompetent that we want to find said reviewer and beat him or her with a tire iron. These are, however annoying they may be, the costs of obtaining the benefits of blind peer review and we pay them becaue those benefits are worth it.

And so we return to the issue of anonymous blogging. We are all used to a small group of anonymous individuals exerting an unbelieavable amount of power over our careers through the peer review system, so why should we view bloggers with such fear? It seems likely that one anonymous blogger will have less effect on our career prospects than even one anonymous reviewer. Moreover, in exchange for the potential hassles of those pesky anonymous bloggers, we may get in return a lively intellectual exchange between smart people who might not otherwise listen to each other.

Is this a good trade? That's for you to decide, but I know what I think.


* Not least because I've been sick, and busy, and haven't followed said debate as closely as I should have. Still, if blogging isn't about uninformed opinions, what is it about?

** I'm not even going to attempt to address Plain(s)feminsits possible change of names. It's just too much of a pain to call her the "possibly-former-Plain(s)feminsit," although in blog tradition I suppose I could go with "PFP(s)F."

*** No, I'm not going to provide a link. I haven't deleted these incidents but I'm not going to assist the curious in locating them.

**** For the technically minded in the audience, status characteristics take two forms: specific and diffuse. Specific characteristics confer status in one area while diffuse characteristics confer it in many area. Thus, being a carpenter would impact your status when engaged in wood working activities, but have no impact in other pursuits. Male sex, on the other hand, might produce expectations of competence in a wide variety of areas without any specific skills necessarily being present. Above I am primarily discussing diffuse status characteristics.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In graduate school I was reprimanded when I could not tell my advisor who had reviewed a recent submission to the journal ASR. He argued that I should be able to construct a long short list of potential reviewers from my knowledge of other experts in the relevant sub-fields, and a short short list from the content of the reviews (modes of expression, exhortations to consider particular arguments).
I have since cultivated this skill and it has helped me gain confidence, write more effective arguments (for the reviewers I am bound to encounter), and invest my social capital more wisely as I look down the barrel of tenure review.
It seems to me that a belief in blind reviews or anonymous blogs is a religious belief. While I am not in the business of prescribing dogma, I feel that I have fewer obstacles in achieving my goals as an atheist.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007 5:24:00 PM  
Blogger tina said...

I think there is an important difference between anonymity and pseudonymity here. Anonymity allows rakish behavior because there are no costs. The anonymous poster is unknown. The pseudonymous poster, however, at least someone with a long-term, consistent pseudonym, however, has the risk of losing readership, pissing people off, etc., and can be held accountable in that blogosphere way. A pseudonymous blogger like yourself, who has put years of effort into a blog and participated in a blogging community, doesn't have the same license to ill that an anonymous commenter does.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007 5:34:00 PM  
Blogger S.S.Stone said...

Come forth young man, come forth, identify yourself! laughing here....seriously, I agree with Tina on anonymity allowing rakish behavior .. you can say anything you want including using over the top language that you may not use if your identity be known. It's almost like role playing ...perhaps it's a "second life" character that is speaking.
Another aspect, if you say something truly brilliant how can you take credit for it since you need to remain anonymous?

RE: your art work?? If it's really good how will I represent you? Who will the buyer make the cheque "payable" to?

Have a great week!
Sarah

Wednesday, September 26, 2007 7:47:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

S.S. Stone: I haven't forgotten the art, but it will happen when it happens. Things are hectic for me right now, so going that far out of my norm has to wait for a brief lull.

As for "claiming credit" for my good ideas... really, if I'm blogging things, I pretty much consider it to be a donation to the noosphere.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger Anomie said...

I second Tina's anonymity/pseudonymity distinction. It also adds nuance to your clever comparison to blind reviewing, precisely because of Anon's attempt to argue the comparison's pitfalls:

Quite a few of my readers know my alternate identity as a normal person at a real school. Those who don't can somewhat easily figure it out through the same process we manage to identify our "blind" reviewers before their names are ever listed on the final publication. I am pseudonymed in theory, if not completely in practice.

Thursday, September 27, 2007 8:27:00 AM  

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