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?
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.