Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Critic and the Troll, part 2

Andrew Gelman has a great post up about the recent OrgTheory discussion I wrote about on Monday. He covers a lot of the points that I might have made, so I'll mainly recommend you read his post, with which I pretty much entirely agree. (Also, note that Brayden has reopened the comment thread.) This morning I want to follow through on my promise to deal with the reactions to the reactions to Balazs Kovacs' comment about post-publication criticism.

I'll begin with Lisa's comment, which I had mistakenly assumed was coming from someone associated with ASQ, and therefore given a bit more authority than I should have, and probably got a bit too riled up about it. I took the phrase "...just because you have a reaction to a paper that I have published," as indicating that she was the publisher, not, which is more likely, an author empathizing with Kovacs. In the end, I should probably have taken it like one would take an anonymous comment and (as I'll argue on Friday) left it on the side. But since I did actually engage with it, let's have a look. Here's what she wrote:

This is getting a little nasty now, isn’t it? I’d encourage you both to check yourselves. You actually aren’t entitled to command my attention and energy just because you have a reaction to a paper that I have published. You can use it. Or not. I would guess that Balazs and his co-author feel more than a little jacked by Steve Morgan – whose “reaction” to their work serves no point other than “whose-is-bigger?” point-scoring against Jerry Davis – and it must be very hard to resist the urge to defend. Here’s hoping they can continue to do so! (February 28, 2014 at 11:42 pm)

First of all, I simply didn't see anything "nasty" about what either I or the anonymous commenter had said. Humor (i.e., sarcasm) when pointing out other people's mistakes isn't everyone's cup of tea, but in the context of a discussion in which disagreement has already been expressed, it seems to me like something you just have to expect. Even in an academic seminar. And, as Thomas Presskorn pointed out in the comments on Monday, Jerry Davis hadn't exactly set a high standard of decorum in his denigration of online commenters who, he suggested, lacked basic reading skills and had the attention spans of twelve-year olds.

But what's more telling about Lisa's comment is the idea that I feel "entitled to command [the] attention" of Kovacs and Sharkey. The truth is that I feel "entitled", if that's the right word (actually, I'd say I feel privileged), to express my opinions to anyone who wants to listen, and while I think it does say something about an author whether or not they answer a question (where what it says depends very much on the quality of the question), I don't think the author has any obligation to me to respond immediately. If I succeed in raising doubts about something in the minds of many readers, then that's obviously something an author should take seriously. The point is that an author has a responsibility to the readership of the paper, not any one critic.

I've previously run into the idea that after a paper is published we "can use it. Or not," but not point out weaknesses in it. That's exactly what Karl Weick wrote in response to the discovery that he had plagiarized a poem in his own writing:

While this style of using stories as allegories may displease people who favor other forms of evidence, the stories themselves are available for comparison, refutation, extension, coupling with other illustrations to exemplify a quite different concept, or for being ignored. ("Dear Editor", my emphasis.)

I think the word "refutation" was supposed to passed over without much thought, actually. Basically, the take-home message to the critic is to leave another's work alone if you're not going to, as Lisa said, "use it". Once when I criticized another paper by a different author, that author politely reminded me (seriously) that if can't say something nice about someone I shouldn't say anything at all. And there's a deeper problem of outlook here, namely, the idea that critics are people who are just trying to "score points". Sometimes that's true (and I certainly think Jerry Davis was trying to score some quick elitist points against both the popular press and open access journals). But criticism, like scholarship itself, is not primarily an ego trip. It's a service to the scholarly community—and it's often a thankless task, I'll have you know.

I'll write one last post about this Friday, responding to Jerry Davis's comment to Andrew's post.

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