Saturday, May 23, 2015

PSR, The News and Moderating Rules (updated)

I got contacted by a reporter about the intersection of the Poli Sci data faking scandal of 2015 and the Political Science Rumors website.  Why?  Because there is a rumor that someone tried to reveal the data fraud anonymously in late 2014 and that such a post or threat may have gotten deleted.  I am one of several moderators there, but the only one who is not anonymous, so I was the obvious person to contact about this.

I honestly do not remember if I deleted such a post or thread.  It is possible.   Turns out it was not me.  But it could have been.  Why would I?  Let me explain my general rules for moderating (I explain how I came to participate and moderate here)  and then explain how they might apply to the case at hand.*
*  I would add something I didn't discuss in the linked post.   Given that I post under my name at the site, unlike most other people, I hated it when my post would be in a thread where others posted something offensive/racist/misogynist/homophobic/xenophobic/etc.  To use the running joke at PSR, I was uncomfy.  By moderating, I could remove such stuff in the threads in which I was participating so it would not look like I was condoning such stuff.  Of course, I get accused of that anyway by my participation here.

First, there is no booklet or instruction manual for the technicalities of moderating the site, so I only recently figured out how to see the stuff that has recently been deleted.  I can only see the last x number of posts and threads that have been deleted.  With the recent traffic, I can see deleted posts all the way back to .... yesterday.

Second, the system is mostly one of fire alarms--that people can report posts and threads as being problematic, and that when I see the site's main page, the reported posts/threads are at the top of the page with links to cancel the report, delete the post/thread or move to the trash directory.  I don't get paid to do this--I do it in my spare time.  So, I don't read every post and every thread.  I do browse the site regularly, and my attention does get drawn to the obviously problematic--such as the ones that use slurs against Asian political scientists.  I also pay more attention to the threads that are closer to my interests--discussions of International Relations, questions about Canadian poli sci, and, of course, the on-going thread where people ask me questions directly. 

Third, there have been both original posts by the anonymous guy who runs the site setting the standards very loosely and discussions by moderators and posters about what should be the standards for moderating.  So, that has informed my moderating.  For instance, one of the original rules I used was to delete attacks against grad students and junior faculty and sometimes let slide attacks against senior faculty since they are less vulnerable (tenure and all that).  A discussion about that produced a fairly strong consensus that all attacks are bad and should be deleted.

So, what are my rules for moderating:
  • Modest criticisms of someone's work is ok, but attacking scholars is not.  What is the line between?  It moves a little bit still from the work of grad students to the work of full professors, so that I am quicker to delete criticisms of the former than the latter.  I do tend to delete when there is piling on.  There are certain folks who tend to get attacked quite a bit, so I just end up deleting anything said about them, as that stuff will spiral quickly. 
  • Stuff that is racist, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic, etc gets deleted.  Pretty much anything hateful.  If someone uses "tard" as a modifier (quantard, qualtard, libtard, contard whatever), I delete it.  Some would argue that I am too quick on this, that I delete stuff that is ideological and not hateful, as there are often discussions about political issues.  But my basic stance is that the primary purpose of this site is to discuss the profession, so if people want to take extreme stances on polarizing issues, they can do that elsewhere if I think it crosses the line into something that helps the site be seen as racist/homophobic/misogynist/etc.  Given the volume of stuff that fits into these categories that appears at the site, I don't delete all of it since I don't see all of it.  Again, fire alarms--if people report it or if I happen to see it, then I delete. 
  • Duplicate threads and posts.  One of the Kirk-rules is to delete duplicate threads.  I tried hard to do that in the opening hours of the recent controversy, but it has been overwhelming.  I still do it, but I do not have the time or desire to stay on top of it.  The better example is that there are endless threads attacking various methods or subfields or approaches--if people want to engage in the quant vs. qual wars, there are older threads for that.  We don't need to create new threads daily for these debates.  So, I regularly delete threads that bash quantitative work, that bash qualitative work, that bash all political theorists, etc.   
  • Whining about moderation.  If one posts something that breaks the rules, I not only delete the thread but also the posts that complain about the deletion.  This is mostly about not giving the trolls what they want.  If I didn't delete these, the site would fill up with these complaints.  I let some stick around, especially when it is a close call, but I have no tolerance for those who troll and then get miffed that their trolling has been deleted.
  • Which leads to the following category: posts/threads that are designed to provoke over-reactions.  If a post seems to be aimed mostly to troll rather than engage in a conversation, then I may delete it, especially if it approaches other lines.  This is where things get more contested as "the kids these days" seem to think that trolling is a good/acceptable form of behavior.  I don't.  I also do fall for trolls who try to get me to engage them in discussions....
  • I don't delete stuff that criticizes me, but I do delete stuff that lies about me.  I figure that I am fair game for attacks since I choose to participate there, but other mods disagree and delete many of those attacks.  Deletions are not attributed publicly to particular moderators although we moderators can see when we look at the page of deleted posts/threads (as long they are recent enough)
I probably have other rules but I am still jet-lagged so this is what I can figure out right now.  How does this apply to the case at hand?  Again, I don't remember deleting any posts that tried to prove that the study in question was based on fraudulent data, but such posts could have triggered deletion by me or by other moderators based on two rules above: attacking grad students and homophobia.  That the study was about attitudes about gays drew much fire, and so it could have been seen that the work was being attacked because it had a result that some folks did not want to hear.  More likely, it was that people were attacking this guy and his work quite a bit so a discussion of the data might have been seen as part of these attacks rather than an honest attempt at whistleblowing.  There is a real signal and noise problem since one of the basic tendencies at PSR is for people to attack students who are successful on the job market.  Jealousy and envy run strong there.  The job candidate in question not only landed a Princeton job but got something like ten interviews.

So, no, I am not part of a Yale-based conspiracy to protect this guy.  I don't know him, never met his adviser, and met Don Green, the co-author, once.

I was asked by the reporter if I would regret deleting the thread if I had done so, and the answer is: not really.  I don't think an anonymous forum is the place to deal with fraudulent work.  Why?  Because it is most likely to be seen as noise and as personal attacks.  Yes, there is some career risk to outing a fraudulent piece of work--some people are miffed at David Broockman and his collaborators for what they did (see the discussions at PSR where this scholar gets lots of criticism for .... being successful).  But science, social or not, works by people engaging in conversations with their names attached.  The debate about whether the system worked is ongoing, and I tend to lean on the side of the argument that says it worked.  Yes, if the news was really out in December rather than May, that would have been good.  But it is not clear that anyone would buy the accusations made by faceless individuals at a place where the successful folks are regularly attacked. 

Maybe there was whistleblowing at PSR, but any such effort is ultimately undermined by the tendency to engage in attacks against those who do well on the market and in the profession.  It would be nice if there was restraint.  In the old days, people posted the identities of job candidates who got interviews and jobs so that we can all figure out what kind of work is doing better, which programs are more successful and so on.  But then those people got attacked, and then people stopped posting real info, real "job rumors."  Which is too bad.  The job market is very confusing, the process is often opaque, and the students of today would be better off if they could know what is going on.  Uncertainty breeds anxiety and we have enough of that as it is.  Alas, restraint is not the way of anonymous comment boards.  "Don't read the comments" people say.  Well, that is all there is at PSR. 

I still participate because people do ask questions about the profession--that socialization is wildly uneven--and I feel that I am being of assistance by providing some of my views on questions about CVs, job applications, getting books published and the like.  But it can be tricky.  Which is why I do listen to suggestions about how to moderate better when they are helpful and pitched with respect.  So, if you have suggestions for how I could be a better moderator, let me know.  I was never trained to do this.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the post.
i tried to have my school added to the PSR's list, so that i could post. it did not work. if you could add to the list of universities, that would be great

Steve Saideman said...

I just noticed this and will let Kirk know.