Monday, March 03, 2014

The Critic and the Troll, part 1

I had a somewhat embarrassing experience in the blogosphere on Friday, carrying over briefly to the twitterverse. It's a good example of how what Michel Foucault called "enunciative modality"—the manner of speaking or way of discussion in an academic discipline—conditions who gets to participate in discussions.

On Wednesday, Jerry Davis had published a post called "Is 'Public Intellectual' Oxymoronic" in which he criticized the intellectual abilities of, well, the public (represented by the commenters on the Guardian's website) and the researchers and journal editors (of especially open access journals) who cater to them. In the discussion that followed, there were people who defended both open access journals and the public, some in great detail. I'll write another post on the substance of the discussion; this morning I want to focus on how it ended.

The paper that Davis had chosen as an example of good research, not published in an open-access journal and not properly appreciated by the public, had naturally been the focus of the discussion. Steve Morgan, for example, had written a long comment pointing out flaws in the paper that should, he argued, have been apparent to the careful reviewers that Davis had been, well, bragging about (he had himself been the editor of the paper he was promoting). In response, one of its authors, Balazs Kovacs said something that I found very strange. Post-publication discussion of papers, he said, can be

really taxing on the authors. That is, if someone posts a comment / doubt about your paper, you as an author need to address that otherwise the last public record will be an unanswered doubt. This obligation to reply any future comments, however, means that the process never ends. And that is not something I look forward to. I am a kind of person who gets tired of a project during the publication process (I guess I’m not alone!). The main reason that I love getting a paper published is that then I can close the process and move on to other new and exciting projects. The key is “moving on.” The fact that in such public debates of my previously published papers I’d need to go back to old stuff, essentially takes away the biggest satisfaction I derive from publishing a paper. (February 28, 2014 at 8:41 pm

Now, first of all, the paper has just been published. But you can imagine how people like me, who believe that good research is all in the criticism and replication of published results, not in their mere production and publication, would find it disappointing to find this kind of comment made by an author of an article in, literally, the top journal in the field.

I expressed my disappointment in a comment, as did an anonymous commenter, who, as I recall, suggested sarcastically that, s/he guessed, Kovacs would be happy if no one cited the paper in the future too. I have to recall that comment because, as with my own comment, it drew the ire of not only Jerry Davis but also someone identifying herself as Lisa and with some kind of connection to ASQ*, and finally caused Brayden King to delete it. For the record, I thought the sarcasm was well-placed. Kovacs' unwillingness to discuss his own recently published results was silly and deserved ridicule. Not long after, in any case, Brayden closed the comments altogether, saying that I, specifically, had "hijacked" the thread. I was a bit taken aback by this, all the more so when I saw that Brayden had explained his actions on Twitter as being necessitated by "the trolls moving in". Needless to say, I don't like being called a troll, but I'll leave it to anyone who is interested to determine whether or not they think that's what I am.

I'm out of time (in fact I've run over) this morning and will have to continue this on Wednesday. In her reprimand, Lisa asked me to "check myself"; in an email correspondence, Brayden has suggested that I be more careful on the internet in the future. These people, I will argue, have drawn way too fine a line between criticism and trolling. That line needs to be much thicker at OrgTheory and, I'll suggest, in organization studies in general. Like our skin.

*It turns out that I'm probably wrong about this. I had read her as saying she had published the Kovacs and Sharkey paper, but it is more likely that she was simply putting herself in their shoes.


Presskorn said...

Weird reaction... If anything in that thread strikes me as verging on being "nasty" or "trolling", it would be the orignal blogpost itself with its use of phrases like "budding methodologist-wannabe" predicated of a specific, even if unnamed, person - who is also chastised for not having an "attention span greater than that of a 12-year-old."...

Thomas said...

Yes, good point. It was odd to close the discussion for lack of adherence to the "norms of basic online civility" after the way the Guardian's commenters had been skewered.

j. said...

i feel like i've seen an uptick in that sort of heavy-handed comment-thread management, specifically by academic bloggers, in the last however many years. when i notice it it usually seems to me as if they are trying to will their professional norms of interaction into existence in a medium which naturally tends to escape those norms.

it seems to go along with the taunting of anonymous posters as dishonest or cowardly.

think i'm going to devote my afternoon to determining who is and is not entitled to command my time and energy just because of their reactions to things i have said.

Jonathan said...


(1) First of all, the category of "intellectual" arose with the idea of the intellectual person intervening in public debates. Zola with the the Dreyfus case is the standard reference. Public intellectual is not oxymoronic but merely redundant.

(2) The scholar seems to want the publication to be line item on the cv, not contribution to an intellectual dialogue.

(3) The scholar in question might expect citations, but only those that use his ideas as background noise, without actually entering into such dialogue? Your comment, while snarky and perhaps sarcastic, was the perfect response.

Thomas said...

@j.: yes, I think there is an increase in this sort of nervousness. The more influential blogs become, or at least the more attention people pay to them, the more pressure there will be on their administrators to guide the discussion. It guess it's a bit like how winning an award can sometimes affect the evaluation of your work.

@jonathan: thanks. I think Jerry Davis was (mis)using the word "intellectual" to mean simply smart person. That's actually a common conceit among intellectuals. They think they are smarter than everyone else, when in fact they're just a little more vocal and scrappy. People who don't like "knife fights" in public, to use Steve Morgan's image, shouldn't think of themselves as intellectuals ... no matter how smart they are.