Archive for the ‘pet peeve’ Category

is “public intellectual” oxymoronic?

A guest post by Jerry Davis. He is the Wilbur K. Pierpont Collegiate Professor of Management at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

By this point everyone in the academy is familiar with the arguments of Nicholas Kristof and his many, many critics regarding the value of academics writing for the broader public.  This weekend provided a crypto-quasi-experiment that illustrated why aiming to do research that is accessible to the public may not be a great use of our time.  It also showed how the “open access” model can create bad incentives for social science to write articles that are the nutritional equivalent of Cheetos.

Balazs Kovacs and Amanda Sharkey have a really nice article in the March issue of ASQ called “The Paradox of Publicity: How Awards Can Negatively Affect the Evaluation of Quality.”  (You can read it here:  The paper starts with the intriguing observation that when books win awards, their sales go up but their evaluations go down on average.  One can think of lots of reasons why this should not be true, and several reasons why it should, all implying different mechanisms at work.  The authors do an extremely sophisticated and meticulous job of figuring out which mechanism was ultimately responsible.  (Matched sample of winning and non-winning books on the short list; difference-in-difference regression; model predicting reviewers’ ratings based on their prior reviews; several smart robustness checks; and transparency about the sample to enhance replicability.)  As is traditional at ASQ, the authors faced smart and skeptical reviewers who put them through the wringer, and a harsh and generally negative editor (me).  This is a really good paper, and you should read it immediately to find out whodunit.

The paper has gotten a fair bit of press, including write-ups in the New York Times and The Guardian (  And what one discovers in the comments section of these write-ups is that (1) there is no reading comprehension test to get on the Internet, and (2) everyone is a methodologist.  Wrote one Guardian reader:

The methodology of this research sounds really flawed. Are people who post on Goodreads representative of the general reading public and/or book market? Did they control for other factors when ‘pairing’ books of winners with non-winners? Did they take into account conditioning factors such as cultural bias (UK readers are surely different from US, and so on). How big was their sample? Unless they can answer these questions convincingly, I would say this article is based on fluff.

Actually, answers to some of these questions are in The Guardian’s write-up:  the authors had “compared 38,817 reader reviews on of 32 pairs of books. One book in each pair had won an award, such as the Man Booker prize, or America’s National Book Award. The other had been shortlisted for the same prize in the same year, but had not gone on to win.”  And the authors DID answer these questions convincingly, through multiple rounds of rigorous review; that’s why it was published in ASQ.  The Guardian included a link to the original study, where the budding methodologist-wannabe could read through tables of difference-in-difference regressions, robustness checks, data appendices, and more.  But that would require two clicks of a functioning mouse, and an attention span greater than that of a 12-year-old.

Another says:

This is a non story based on very iffy research. Like is not compared with like. A positive review in the New York Times is compared with a less complimentary reader review on GoodReads…I’ll wait to fully read the actual research in case it’s been badly reported or incorrectly written up

Evidently this person could not even be troubled to read The Guardian’s brief story, much less the original article, and I’m a bit skeptical that she will “wait to fully read the actual research” (where her detailed knowledge of Heckman selection models might come in handy).  After this kind of response, one can understand why academics might prefer to write for colleagues with training and a background in the literature.

Now, on to the “experimental” condition of our crypto-quasi-experiment.  The Times reported another study this weekend, this one published in PLoS One (of course), which found that people who walked down a hallway while texting on their phone walked slower, in a more stilted fashion, with shorter steps, and less straight than those who were not texting (  Shockingly, this study did not attract wannabe methodologists, but a flood of comments about how pedestrians who text are stupid and deserve what they get.  Evidently the meticulousness of the research shone through the Times write-up.

One lesson from this weekend is that when it comes to research, the public prefers Cheetos to a healthy salad.  A simple bite-sized chunk of topical knowledge goes down easy with the general public.  (Recent findings that are frequently downloaded on PLoS One: racist white people love guns; time spent on Facebook makes young adults unhappy; personality and sex influence the words people use; and a tiny cabal of banks controls the global economy.)

A second lesson is that there are great potential downsides to the field embracing open access journals like PLoS One, no matter how enthusiastic Fabio is.  Students enjoy seeing their professors cited in the news media, and deans like to see happy students and faculty who “translate their research.”  This favors the simple over the meticulous, the insta-publication over work that emerges from engagement with skeptical experts in the field (a.k.a. reviewers).  It will not be a good thing if the field starts gravitating toward media-friendly Cheeto-style work.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz 

Written by fabiorojas

February 26, 2014 at 12:05 am

writing peeves: use first person and active voice or the red pen of wrath will rain a rewrite upon thee

In my undergraduate classes, students always express surprise when I say that I expect them to use first person when appropriate in writing, including field notes and the methods section of research papers.   I explain that disciplines and instructors have different norms about voice, but my preference is for conveying that an actor is responsible for an action.  My undergrads usually embrace first person after this short explanation.

However, some writers find breaking the passive voice habit a difficult endeavor.  Manuscripts and publications reveal that some colleagues rely on passive space-wasters such as “There is/are…” rather than explicitly identifying actors or assigning responsibility for actions.  When encountering such fillers in manuscripts and publications, I have the same visceral reaction as a craftsperson spotting a poorly executed part in a colleague’s handiwork – an immediate urge to transform the offending sentence into a tighter, more informative one.*  It seems I’m not the only one.

One journal editor shares similar rationales for using first rather than third person:

First person pronouns

This is one area in which I am not conservative. In the olden days we were taught to write in the third person – “the author found” – and in passive voice – “it was found that….” This is really a rhetorical device to convince readers to believe you and not ask embarrassing questions. The results were discovered on stone tablets on the mystic mountain.  No human beings were involved in the research. Of course it’s correct! It’s SCIENCE.

In the last thirty years or so, people in the philosophy of science have been dealing with the fact that human beings actually are involved in research, that they have interests and biases, and that the best way to develop some kind of shareable knowledge, otherwise known as “science” or “objectivity,” is to admit these biases and try to control them rather than pretending they don’t exist. Post-modernists and phenomenologists seem to have given up on shareable knowledge.

At JSSW we still look for it, we just realize that it’s harder to attain than we used to think.

So, it’s fine with me if you want to speak in the first person. But if you’re of the old school, I won’t try to change you. I’ll settle for trying to make you uncomfortable.

William H. Starbuck shares his tips for how to avoid first person, without resorting to third person:

Avoid first-person and second-person pronouns.

First-person pronouns do sometimes serve well, but you should recognize the disadvantages of saying I, we, our or you. When you refer explicitly to yourself, you remind your readers that they are reading your ideas, not their ideas; and consequently you make it more difficult for your readers to adopt your ideas as their own. Thus, taking credit for your ideas makes your writing less persuasive and gives your ideas less impact. For example,

In this paper we argue that focusing on –> Focusing on

It is my assumption that the support problems stated are common to any bank service bureau. –> Such support problems afflict any bank service bureau.

I will concentrate my efforts on the coordination mechanisms between departments. –> This research focuses on coordination between departments.

We suggest, furthermore, that assessing –> Furthermore, assessing

In presenting our typology, we will therefore give concrete examples –> Concrete examples illustrate each type.

For similar reasons, do not talk about the reader or the author.

* I would much rather follow the writer’s argument than break out the red pen of wrath.

Written by katherinechen

October 3, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Posted in pet peeve, uncategorized

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