Norms, Rules, and Protecting Scholarly Associations

A few weeks ago the International Studies Association (ISA) stumbled into a hornet’s nest when Steve Saideman leaked a proposed policy on his blog that the Governing Counsel of the association was to consider at its annual meeting this March.  The policy proposal sought to build on ISA’s existing Code of Conduct and prohibit editors of the association’s journals from contributing to blogs beyond an official blog for the journal in question.

Myself and many others (e.g., see here, here, here, and here) helped draw attention to (and criticized) the policy, and in response ISA president Harvey Starr will now propose that the Executive Committee effectively send the issue to committee for discussion.  I have had the opportunity to speak with a couple of the people who were present at a lightly attended Executive Council meeting in Chicago last September, during which the proposal was born.  It turns out that ISA protocol is for the EC to discuss an issue, take a straw poll, and then have someone draft text to be sent to the Governing Council for discussion, and then voting, during the annual meeting.  The EC itself does not formally vote on policy proposals.

What I wanted to know was: What problem is the proposal intended to address?  In addition to speaking with a couple of the folks who attended that ISA EC meeting last August, today I read the following explanation of the policy which Brian Pollins, who was there, posted to his FaceBook wall (in response to the Kristof Kerfuffle):

To the Editor: February 16, 2014

In Sunday’s Op-Ed, Nicholas Kristof notes the proposed ban by the International Studies Association on personal blogs run by the editors of its journals. This policy – still under discussion – is in no way intended as a curb on free speech, as it has so often been misconstrued. As Chair of the Publications Committee for that organization, I wish to offer important clarification. First, postings on such blogs can be confused with positions taken by the Association. We learned this the hard way when a writer (not one of our editors) posted an item on an ISA editor’s blog which deeply offended many of our members, and some of those scholars feared the Association approved the post. We had not. Second, ISA, as owner of those journals, has contractual obligations with our publishers, and there can be serious proprietary ambiguities when a scholar sends material to an editor which may then appear on the editor’s blog, possibly to appear later in revised form in one of our journals. Third, recognizing the value of policy-relevance and immediacy, ISA has been working with our publisher, Wiley & Sons, to develop blogs that are connected explicitly to each of our journals. Future editors, therefore, would not cease blogging, but transfer their energies (during their editorial tenure) from personal to Association blogs – hopefully addressing the first two problems. Still, there will be treacherous waters to navigate. The role of editor at an academic journal is to sit as fair judge of the quality of peers’ work. Many (though certainly not all) blogs emphasize opinion or policy advocacy. Since these missions are incompatible, an academic “journal blog” is likely to develop a profile yet to be fully seen.

With the advent of electronic publishing and social networks, the world of academic publishing is evolving with amazing speed. To us it is clear that there are new relationships that require sorting out. We do not have all the answers, we are feeling our way through. But we are acting in good faith with the interests of our members and the free exchange of ideas paramount.


Prof. Brian M. Pollins
Assoc. Prof. Emeritus
The Ohio State University
Chair, Publications Committee
International Studies Association

The issue that apparently motivated ISA’s policy was the series of posts at Duck of Minerva that drew considerable negative attention the week prior to the EC’s August meeting, and the fact that the Dan Nexon, the new editor of the association’s flagship journal, was a founding member of that blog.  Interestingly, Nexon posted, to Facebook in response to a post about the ISA’s proposed policy, his own views, which strike me as similar to those raised by Pollins:

viz. blogging and editing. I’ve written (and then deleted) various versions of this before, but I might as well say it here. I think that there are two problems that blogging raises, neither of which are unique to that media.

First, a possible conflict of interest. To the extent that a blog resembles a journal, a magazine, or something in that idiom, it is irresponsible for an editor-in-chief (but not someone much lower on the totem pole) to divide his or her attention between the journal and the blog. A lot of what I was doing at the Duck — arranging symposia, debates, podcasts, tie-ins with academic journals — presents a clear conflict of interest.

Second, accountability. If I do something offensive or problematic on Facebook, Twitter, a personal blog, in a television interview, or whatever, then the association can hold me accountable. Or my friends and fellow editors can tell me to knock it off. But if someone else does something on an editor-less group blog that threatens, by association, the reputation of the journal? Damage without recourse. Harm without accountability.

In the interest of focus (on an already long post), I am going to restrict my attention to the second issue: damage to an association without recourse, harm absent accountability.  In particular, I want to explore whether ISA’s Code of Conduct offers sufficient safeguard, or whether (1) revisions to it are required or (2) a policy of some kind is superior?  

To do so I think it is useful to consider a recent relevant situation.  A month ago a Senior Editor at Nature, Henry Gee, posted the following tweet from his personal Twitter account:

Nature Editor Tweets

Popular Science asked “Why Did This Top Science Journal Editor Expose A Blogger’s Pen Name?“, writing…

A senior editor at the journal, Henry Gee, revealed the real name of a science blogger who usually goes by the pseudonym Isis the Scientist. On Twitter, he wrote (and I’m redacting the name for Isis’s privacy):

@drisis Hah! Nature boycotted by inconsequential sports physio [name]. Nature quakes in its boots.

People have since taken issue with 1) the fact that he didn’t respect the privacy of a blogger, and 2) took a belittling, arguably sexist tone toward her. Isis has been critical of Nature in the past, and Gee has since been defending the outing based on how she has used the nom de plume “to spread hurtful untruths.” (She’s been critical of perceived sexism in the journal, something the publication again took heat for again recently after publishing a controversial letter on women in science.)

It is difficult to imagine that many people would defend such a post as appropriate.  Further, given that Gee wrote the post from his personal Twitter account, this is precisely the sort of treacherous waters that the ISA EC does not want to navigate.  As you might imagine, there was a considerable reaction to Gee’s tweet (e.g., see here, here, here, and here), and as if reading from a script Gee first withdrew the tweet, then closed his Twitter account, and then posted an “apology.”  To the best of my knowledge Nature has not sanctioned Gee or otherwise responded to the incident, which I find surprising, but that aside, this is a great example to help us think about what policy, if any, ISA might adopt.

To begin, we must consider the status quo, which is to say, learn what ISA’s Code of Conduct contains and explore what it implies ISA should have done had Gee been an editor of an ISA journal.  I am personally impressed at how detailed the policy is.  It not only ensures protection against, but includes definitions of “bullying” and “harrassment,” details a formal complaint process, and describes specific procedures the association will take to address and complaints.  Indeed, it is sufficiently detailed that I am not going to try to summarize it.  By my reading, had Gee been an editor of an ISA journal any member of ISA troubled by his tweet (including, but not limited to, Dr. Isis, were she amember) filed a formal complaint the ISA would have begun its mediation process, and should that fail, created an investigating committee that would have reported conclusions to the ISA president.  An appeal process is also available once the president rules.

As I see it, this process has two weaknesses that the ISA ought to address.  First, it imagines only an aggrieved ISA member.  The Code does not explicitly address a situation where an ISA editor (or other officer) misbehaves; there is no process by which the ISA might discipline someone like Gee, except to wait for an aggrieved member to file a complaint.  That is far from a fatal flaw–all ISA officers are also members–but it doesn’t seem optimal.

Second, and more importantly, the process is cumbersome, which is to say, slow.  It strikes me as one set up to balance the rights of the accused versus those of the aggrieved via a multi-stage process; one that seems wholly appropriate for an association with a large and diverse membership.  But the association strikes me as having a legitimate interest in creating a more streamlined process applicable to people like editors (for many of the reasons raised by Pollins and Nexon).  Nexon writes that if he misbehaves in any media forum that the association can hold him accountable.  It isn’t clear to me that the Code of Conduct covers that well, though perhaps he has a contract that does, and the Code is thus superseded.

That said, I personally find the policy proposal that Saideman leaked to be surprisingly poor, and am pleased that it has been tabled in favor of discussion before being brought to the floor for a vote.  If the contract an editor signs does not provide a process by which the ISA can discipline editors, then something should be done to address that.  If the contract provides such a means, then the ISA could have addressed the Gee situation without any difficulty.

What the Gee example does not address, however, is the one that Nexon considers:  how to limit damage to the association done by someone contributing to an “editor-less group blog” associated with ISA.  I think that concern, not something akin to the Gee example, is actually at the heart of what the Executive Committee’s discussion last August.  The issue, as far as I can tell, has something to do with “confusion about branding” that the ability to share one’s views without mediation introduces.  Can a Senior Editor at Nature tweet from a personal account about Nature and somehow distinguish it as personal?  I think virtually all of us will agree that is not reasonable.  What, then, is reasonable: what, if anything, should an Association do to protect itself from “brand confusion,” and harm done to it should a public associate poor behavior by someone with a loose tie to one of its officers?  Restricting its editors from being members of a group blog like The Duck of Minerva apparently struck the ISA Executive Committee as a reasonable way to accomplish that.  I remain dubious, but agree that discussion is warranted.  I suspect that whatever might be proposed, I will favor norms (e.g., Code of Conduct) to rules (e.g., the proposed policy Saideman leaked), but that is one person’s view.

In closing, while I do not at present see a compelling concern that needs to be addressed, given that former International Studies Quarterly co-editor, Brian Pollins, and current editor, Dan Nexon, agree that there is potential for concern  persuades me that the issue merits discussion.  Perhaps my reflections here will help others in leadership positions in ISA (and, by extension, other academic associations) think through these issues.


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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8 Responses to Norms, Rules, and Protecting Scholarly Associations

  1. Since the proposal was on the open part of the ISA’s website, I am not sure I leaked it….

  2. You know what’s missing from this conversation, as far as I can tell? Science.

    From what you’re reporting here, it looks like the concerns the ISA proposal was meant to address center on protecting a) the association and b) the publisher. I understand that those organizations serve useful functions, but this conversation seems to be edging into territory in which those functions are construed as ends unto themselves and not means of advancing social science. That actually worries me more than the idea had before that this proposal came from some people with good intentions but little sense of the practice and potential scientific value of blogging.

  3. dnexon says:

    Will, thanks for a thoughtful discussion. As a matter of fact, I agree that neither of the concerns that I discuss justify new regulations and policies. I posted them for two reasons: (1) to push back against the notion that ISA has no legitimate interests at stake and (2) to emphasize that it makes little sense to single out blogging from other media.

  4. Will, I have been thinking about this post all day. While you oppose ISA’s policy, you seem to be defending (or at least taking at face value) their view of what the problem is – e.g. “damage to an association without recourse.” I agree with you on what ISA thinks the problem is, but I am in deep disagreement as to whether they are correct to think this is a actually a problem. I’ll write more about that later. For now, I wanted to make sure I understand some of your thinking (and maybe Dan’s):

    1) Why exactly is it so self-evidently a conflict of interest to simultaneously participate in scholarly peer review and also be involved more modestly in other publishing outlets?

    2) What do you mean by ‘scholarly association’?

    • Will H. Moore says:

      Charli, thanks for stopping by, and for asking for clarification. By scholarly association I am thinking of the professional associations that seek to facilitate intellectual exchange among university faculty, such as ISA, but also including those like AAAS. Put another way, 501 C3’s that serve as professional clubs for professors to interact. Hopefully that clarifies (and apologies for the ambiguity).

      I appreciate your conviction, and while I am less certain than you are, I am pretty confident that I agree. My initial reaction to the issue was that it was so patently stupid that there was nothing to discuss. I now feel that I was too quick to reach that judgment. I do not at all rule out that judgment: if I had to place a $100 wager on my final position, I would place it there. But I think that Brian, Dan, and a couple of other folks have me willing to step back and say: “Ok, I will grant that it is not prima facie a waste of time to have a discussion about this. Please explain why associations like the ISA need to be concerned with “confusion about branding” (an awkward bit I made up; is there a decent way to reference this?); with damage to the association because readers out there mistakenly attribute to the association poor behavior by someone the association cannot discipline.”

      Perhaps this will help. I am trying to say to folks at ISA who feel a need for new policy: “I’m listening. But the burden is on you to be more explicit about the harm that may come. Until we know how that might work, we cannot elaborate norms, nor produce policy, that might deter it.” I selected the Gee example because it is concrete. Beyond that type of situation I want the burden to be on proponents of a change in the Code or a new policy to explain to the rest of us what that concern is.

  5. Pingback: A Fan Letter to Nicholas Kristof. » Duck of Minerva

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