Moderation and Critique

“What would an effective whistle-blowing site for scholarly work look like,” asks Benson in Friday’s post, “and how might it be developed?” I think that’s a great question, precisely because it has no easy answers. Consider Retraction Watch, which informs Benson’s thinking here. In many ways, this is precisely the sort of site he’s looking for. But notice what they say in the FAQ/comment policy:

we have recently found ourselves — this update is from January 2013 — having to edit ad hominem attacks out of comments, unapprove other comments, and contact some commenters to remind them of what’s appropriate.

It may not be clear to those who feel the need to resort to such personal attacks that they destroy the discourse that we and others have worked so hard to build on Retraction Watch, but it is abundantly clear to us and many others. The same goes for unfounded allegations and unverified facts.

That is, it is absolutely essential that a whistle-blowing site be “moderated”. There must be some sort of filter on the allegations. A public notice board for accusations of academic misconduct is not a solution to our problems. We do not simply need better means to circulate anonymous rumors. (I’m not saying that this is what Benson has called for, of course; my point is just that it’s not that such allegations really lack an “outlet”; they lack, perhaps, an effective one.) One day, this blog, too, may need to guard against becoming an unfiltered channel for accusations in the comments field. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.

By extension, a whistle-blowing organization will necessarily always be a moderate one. It must be discerning in the cases it pursues and promotes publicly, just like our own ombudsman (who is also essentially a whistle-blower institution). It’s credibility, and therefore it’s effectiveness depends on it. It must avoid “false positives” and it must therefore risk letting a few fish get through the net. And once we realize this, we have to ask ourselves whether we don’t already have whistle-blowing organizations in academia. Aren’t there plenty of institutions that help academics, when they need it, to bring the truth of a colleague’s misconduct to light? It’s just that we don’t make use of them (or not enough). So in order to answer Benson’s questions we really have to understand it as asking, “How can we improve the institutions of scholarship to make it easier to expose misconduct?”

As I said in my comment to Benson’s post, I think there’s some low-hanging fruit to pick before we climb up the tree towards whistle-blowing. Before we find new ways of exposing hidden misconduct, i.e., outright deception and fraud, we need to learn how to point out ordinary errors of scholarship in each other’s work as a part of the regular routine. Politicians, for example, openly criticize each other in public, and then there’s the occasional scandal occasioned by whistle-blowing. I sometimes get the feeling that we’re less critical in social science–too polite, if you will. We aren’t comfortable enough correcting each other’s published mistakes. How, then, can we expect each other to deal effectively with each other’s private vices?

There is a great deal of error in science that is out there in plain view. One of them, it should be noted, is plagiarism–part of the public record. After all, in the classic case of plagiarism, both the source text and the plagiary are published. All we have to do is put them side by side and compare them. And that, of course, brings us back to the case of the PhD student I’m working on. So let me conclude this post by asking a question for the next one: How would an effective whistle-blowing site or organization have helped her deal with her problem? Let’s think this through concretely.

3 thoughts on “Moderation and Critique”

  1. We’re looking at this from two different perspectives, and they are not mutually exclusive. There is no right or wrong – just a different emphasis. Let the emperor adjudicate.

    Police used to be systematically a law unto themselves – now they are less so. This is because there are now institutions in place that moderate their activities. They are aware of this. For example, the cop that attempted to recently plant evidence – it would have been unnecessary before systematic police investigations were in place when people were hurt. Now we have videos (and soon personal cameras) to afford yet another layer of integrity.

    Thus, the answer to your question cannot be case specific. The question I might ask is this: Would this PhD student have the dilemma in the first place were faculty aware that they were under scrutiny? What can we do, institutionally and systemically, to reduce unethical behavior? Do we, as a profession, have obligations to address some of these concerns – and if so – are we doing all we can?

  2. I agree that the two approaches can complement each other. But in all questions of institutional reform we have to remember that we’re working with scarce resources, limited attention spans and emotional energy. While I agree that it’s a question of emphasis, I’m not sure that I’d as easily say that this implies there’s no right and wrong. There’s a right and wrong emphasis, within a larger struggle toward the same shared goal. It’s because we don’t have infinite resources that conversations like this (since talk really is relatively cheap) are important.

  3. I’m often struck by the thought that once upon a time, someone stood on Manhattan island and considered it would be a good place to build a city. It would be amazing if someday, our blogs planted seeds that germinate – in any direction! I would be equally pleased to see your seeds sprout – in fact – to see any seedlings germinate from this ambitious project would be a wonderful outcome. Let’s just keep planting and watering and see what happens.

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