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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Should there be a statute of limitation for post-publication commentary?

There is a fascinating spat going on over at orgtheory.net with overspill at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. The casus belli was an opinion piece by the editor of Administrative Science Quarterly, puffing an article in the latest edition of his journal and bad mouthing attempts to write social science for a popular audience with a few sideswipes at open access journals. So, pretty much business as usual.   

ASQ was the first journal whose aesthetic, circa 1982,  I fell in love with: the wide margins, the thick creamy paper, the thin band of text down the middle - I think New Left Review stole that idea from them - and above all the abstract art in full colour on the covers. It was also a pretty good journal - no idea what it's like now as I haven't read it for years.

The initial post was  quickly overwhelmed by commentary on a whole other range of issues some of which are actually quite interesting. What is also very interesting is how quickly tempers became frayed, skin was revealed to be rather thin and some quite amazing  attitudes were expressed.

I should say that the original authors of the article under discussion  - Balazs Kovacs and Amanda Sharkey - come out of this reasonably well, in the sense that after being dragged into someone else's war their responses have been measured and dignified. To avoid any misunderstanding I should lay my cards on the table. Kovacs and Sharkey's paper is, in my opinion, pretty decent, by which I mean better than 99% of the papers published in any of the major British sociology journals. It's the sort of paper that as an editor you are glad to have. In other words it is a serious piece of work, serious enough that it is worth spending time on criticizing it. For me, at least, that it high praise. There is an awful lot of stuff published in British sociology journals that is so bad that it simply isn't worthwhile to expend any effort on criticizing it because you know that your words will fall on cloth ears.

Let me repeat, good papers are worth expending critical effort on and some of the orgtheory commenters do just that, especially Stephen Morgan. Setting aside various not so hidden agendas which lie behind some of the exchanges I don't find Morgan's comments unreasonable. He's certainly got every right to express them and he does so (in my opinion) fairly and courteously.  When I came into academia this is what I thought it was supposed to be all about. A battle of ideas (not of egos) with no holds barred.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Nobody is forced to write anything. But once you do and put it in the public domain you have made your compact with the Devil and are fair game. This applies to the most distinguished professor as well as the most junior post-grad. There aren't and shouldn't be any get out of jail free cards once you choose to unleash your work on the  world. Some of the criticism may be unreasonable and if it is you can choose either to ignore it or combat it. If you choose to ignore criticism put forward with serious intent, well that's your choice, but you shouldn't be surprised if people draw their own conclusions from that kind of behaviour.

One of the topics that came up in the discussion was whether there should be some restrictions on post-publication commentary. This elicited some quite curious reactions, including one to the effect that for that person publication was the end of the process and they wanted to get on with the next thing not defend what they have just published. Perhaps it was hastily composed - it was after all a comment on a blog entry - but for me that is a kind of perversion of the scientific spirit. It seems to turn the means - publication - into the end - the communication of something you feel is worth saying. If it was worth putting all that effort into saying in the first place it surely must be worth the effort to defend it. Or are we all just playing the game of seeing how many farm-yard noises we can fool some gullible journal editors into publishing?

I'm reminded of a bizarre situation I encountered at  the LSE. While I was there I participated from time to time in an informal sociological theory discussion group (which oddly contained only two sociologists neither of whom were members of the sociology department). We met from time to time & invited various interesting people to talk to us. We were constantly trying to get a very prominent social theorist to address us, someone who went out of the way to emphasize his love of discussion, willingness to give public lectures etc etc. He refused all invitations. It very soon became clear that the last thing this person wanted was to discuss his ideas with his peers. Instead he only wanted the flow of communication to be one way - de haut en bas and preferably with an audience that was so ill-informed that they were unable to challenge his "ideas" in any meaningful way. Undoubtedly he did very well for himself, but received no intellectual respect from anyone who was the slightest bit informed. His behaviour contrasted notably with that of Richard Sennett who did speak to us and gained my respect through doing so. Richard and I once taught a course together and it would be fair to say that we did not agree about how to do social science. But, and this is the key thing, Richard was prepared to enter into a full and frank exchange of views. We didn't agree but we also didn't agree to disagree. We talked to each other in front of the class & I think they learned something from our conversation. We need more people like that, people who won't shut up shop and try to bury crucial intellectual differences by refusing to discuss them or even just pretending they don't exist.

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